Prime Minister Viktor Orbán probably does not have any more loyal politician in his ranks than Péter Szijjártó, who at age 35 has been appointed Minister of Foreign Affairs and Trade. Szijjártó was 16 years old when he first met Orbán.
The occasion was when Orbán was invited to speak at the Benedictine high school in Győr, where Szijjártó studied. For the teenager it was a key experience. He says that after listening to the speech he told his schoolmates: “It is my big dream to get to know Viktor Orbán and to work beside him.”
Driven by this admiration, Szijjártó joined Fidesz in 1998. The restless and workaholic young political activist quickly became known in Győr. In 2002, aged 23, he became an MP. His career rose like a comet. He was president of Fidelitas, the Fidesz youth organisation, from 2005-9.
Unbelievable pace of work
His party colleagues recall a highly ambitious person who demanded the same hellish work rate from his employees as his own. For Szijjártó, a workday often began at 5am and ended at 10pm. Sometimes he asked a colleague to get out of bed at 7am on a Sunday to discuss some project or other with him.
Szijjártó put everything behind his political career right from the beginning. Losing control was anathema to him. When he went to a party, which happened quite rarely, you could see him standing by shyly, drinking cola. Szijjártó neither drinks alcohol nor smokes. According to him, the smell of alcohol makes him feel sick. His favourite topics are football and politics. As a child he dreamed of becoming a footballer.
Passionate futsal player
This partly came true and he plays in the local futsal team (futsal is a variant of indoor soccer) at his current home in Dunakeszi, just north of Budapest. Teammates say he is fully committed and will analyse their mistakes for hours. He shares this fanatical enthusiasm for football with model and mentor Orbán.
Szijjártó earned his first political successes as leader of a committee that investigated the “enrichment” of former prime minister Ferenc Gyurcsány (2004-2009). Orbán took notice. The articulate and confident Szijjártó was quickly appointed Fidesz spokesman, alongside Gabriella Selmeczi.
Tamás Deutsch, a founding member of Fidesz, who discovered Szijjártó, has a very positive opinion of him. Deutsch says he is one of the most talented politicians of Fidesz’s “second generation”, beside Minister in charge of the Prime Minister’s Office János Lázár and Fidesz faction leader Antal Rogán. Deutsch values Szijjártó’s political instincts and communication skills most of all.
A boy’s dream comes true
Szijjártó quickly convinced Orbán of his political and rhetorical talents, and in 2010 the Prime Minister appointed him as his personal spokesman. Szíjjártó’s biggest childhood dream had come true. The political upstart became Orbán’s shadow, once accidentally taking home the PM’s suit jacket, thinking it was his own.
Szijjártó spent two years as Orbán’s spokesman. In 2012 it was time for his next career move: he became president of the State Secretariat of Foreign Trade. His most important tasks were opening the Hungarian economy eastwards, namely towards Russia, Turkey, China and Asia.
Szijjártó’s elevation to Minister of Foreign Affairs and Trade has been expected for months, with Tibor Navracsics expected to vacate the post to become a European Commissioner in Brussels.
Inconsistencies around house purchase
The Hungarian media has honed in on the new minister’s private life, discovering that he spent the stately sum of HUF 167 million buying a luxury villa for his family in Dunakeszi. The couple have two small children.
When TV channel RTL Klub asked Szijjártó how he had that much money, he said he funded the purchase partly from own savings up to HUF 80 million and from savings of his wife and her parents (HUF 20 million) and his own parents (HUF 67 million). A little later he revised his answer: only HUF 68 million had come from his private savings, HUF 20 million from his wife and her parents, and the other HUF 79 million given by his own parents.
The government-critical media and the opposition have two questions: how did he save so much money while employed only as a politician, and why were his explanations of the financing so contradictory?
Obama is rebuked
Szijjártó has also been sharply criticised for his first move as minister, which consisted of putting US President Barack Obama in his place. Obama had criticised Hungary among others for acting against non-governmental organisations. The Ministry of Foreign Affairs issued a press release that tersely stated Obama’s words had “no real basis”. The short explanation said the Hungarian nation loves freedom and would not tolerate such a restriction