Loyal, methodical and almost always punctual, Tibor Navracsics, Hungary’s deputy prime minister, was hailed on his appointment last year as a competent administrator and adept technocrat who would ensure the smooth implementation of a radical government programme.
It was a sign of the confidence placed in him by Viktor Orbán, the prime minister, that Navracsics was given a vast portfolio, combining elements of the old justice ministry and prime minister’s office, was also entrusted with civil-service reform and government communication. It was said that Orbán had learned during his previous stint in office, between 1998 and 2002, that his own strengths were as a strategic thinker and leader. Navracsics, sitting at the apex of government in his ministry for public administration and justice, was to take care of the day-to-day operation of government, leaving the prime minister to do what he does best.
The appointment was a huge coup for a man who joined Orbán’s Fidesz party long after it first took shape in the late 1980s as an almost counter-cultural student opposition group centred in a university dormitory. It was a mark not just of Navracsics’s standing, but also of changes in the party’s politics and in its praetorian guard. Other than Orbán, few of the original dissidents have a central role in the current government: several have been dispatched to the European Parliament, another serves on the constitutional court.
Navracsics’s rise through the ranks since he joined Fidesz in 1994 has been unbroken, but it owes much to the ruptures caused by a sequence of catastrophic defeats for the party. He was brought into the party by János Áder, a party founder who is now an MEP, to help identify the causes of the party’s unexpected rout in the 1994 elections. When Orbán took office in 1998, the young political scientist became the prime minister’s press chief. After Fidesz unexpectedly lost the 2002 elections, his unflappable, methodical style once again made him the natural choice to analyse the causes of Fidesz’s defeat, and Orbán made him his chief of staff. When Fidesz once again lost, unexpectedly, to a resurgent Socialist Party in 2006, he was made head of Fidesz’s parliamentary group, becoming the face of the party during its increasingly rancorous campaign against Ferenc Gyurcsány’s Socialist government.
“In 2006, I was the only one who wanted the job,” he recalls of the moment of unrelieved gloom for a party that had, once again, snatched defeat from the jaws of victory. That willingness to step into the breach turned Navracsics from a backroom player into a politician with a national profile.
The son of a teacher and a librarian, Navracsics was born in the western city of Veszprém in 1966. His family was apolitical. “It may seem strange today, but that was normal in the [János] Kádár era,” he says of the period between the 1956 revolution and the collapse of communism in eastern Europe. A self-professed moderate, he attributes a carefully cultivated non-confrontational style and his belief in a “civic Hungary with a strong middle class and market economy” to the influence of his staid but pretty hometown, an ancient and prosperous city near the shores of Lake Balaton. “Western Hungary has always been less radical than the east,” he says, adding that the populist, conservative party that Fidesz became from the mid-1990s onwards was more appealing to him than the liberal student movement was at its inception.
It was while studying law in Budapest in the late 1980s that he first came into contact with Orbán and Fidesz. “It was partly a generational thing, and that they were from the provinces too. They were the most appealing party for me at the time,” he says. “But they were doing very well without me, and I didn’t think I had anything extra to bring to the table.” Already a politics junkie, he busied himself sampling the many new political groupings that were emerging during the “exciting time of the regime change”. Acquaintances from that era remember him leafleting enthusiastically for a Trotskyite cell, though he says it was just one of many different political groupings at the time.
“I read all the samizdat,” he says, describing the development of his political convictions. “I knew about the UK Conservatives and the German Christian Democrats.”
1966: Born, Veszprém
1985-90: Studied law in Budapest
1990-92: Legal work at Veszprém City Court
1993: Civil servant at Veszprém County Council
1993-97: Assistant professor in political science, Budapest University of Economics
1996: Visiting scholar, University of Sussex
1997-: Lecturer, then professor in political science, ELTE University, Budapest
1998-2002: Press officer, Fidesz
1999: Doctorate in political science
2002-03: Head of Fidesz’s political analysis department
2006: Elected to parliament 2006-10: Leader of Fidesz parliamentary group 2010-: Deputy prime minister, minister of public administration and justice
He was briefly a judge, but soon returned to teach political science in Budapest, spending a year at the UK’s University of Sussex in what he describes as a formative encounter with Anglo-Saxon political thinking. Famously popular with his students in Budapest, many of whom now work for him in government, he taught right up until his appointment as a minister.
He is widely regarded as a well-briefed technocrat, able to prepare himself for a meeting during a short car journey. His excellent English and businesslike tones have made him popular abroad. But he showed a more pugnacious face as parliamentary leader. For several years after Gyurcsány’s admission that his party had lied about the state of the economy to win the 2006 elections, Fidesz MPs would leave the parliamentary chamber whenever the prime minister spoke, leaving only Navracsics there alone to respond: it was his searing attacks on the government that sealed his reputation as a loyal and effective political operator. But the clashes were often absurdly personal and bitter: when Gyurcsány’s wife implied that the anger was theatrical, recalling that Navracsics had once dined at their house, Navracsics responded with a blog post describing the prime minister as a “poor host” and an “aggressive” personality.
“It was a very confrontational period, and Gyurcsány himself was very confrontational,” Navracsics says of that time.
Despite the steady hand that Navracsics is famed for, Fidesz’s year in office has been stormy, with clashes over windfall taxes on multinationals and, most recently, with the European Commission over the media law. “Of course there are things we could have done more elegantly,” he says, “but cabinet loyalty prevents me from being specific.”
His rise to date may have seemed effortless, but he is adamant that he will not try to take the final step to the top job. “Politicians burn out, and my colleagues will tell me when that happens. When it comes, I’ll go back to the university.”