The success of the illiberal vision – Orbán’s rise to power

By Kriszt­ian Simon.

Most pop­ulist par­ties start out as rad­i­cals, and — once they have man­aged to build up a sol­id vot­er base — they will grad­u­al­ly shift to some­what more mod­er­ate posi­tions, in order to appeal to wider audi­ences. This, how­ev­er, does not apply to Hungary’s pop­ulist gov­ern­ing par­ty: Fidesz, the Alliance of Young Democ­rats, was set up as a demo­c­ra­t­ic alter­na­tive to the com­mu­nist youth move­ment KISZ, and ran as a lib­er­al par­ty on the first free Hun­gar­i­an elec­tions in 1990. At the time their main tar­get audi­ence was edu­cat­ed young peo­ple who were look­ing for a demo­c­ra­t­ic alter­na­tive to state social­ism. After a few years the par­ty lead­er­ship had to real­ize that there are lim­its to growth as a mod­er­ate par­ty – so today they pro­mote “illib­er­al­ism,” and their pop­u­lar­i­ty is based on fearmongering.

The Fidesz evolution

Fidesz was found­ed in 1988 by 37 uni­ver­si­ty and col­lege stu­dents, main­ly from the Eötvös Loránd University’s legal fac­ul­ty in Budapest – among them par­ty-leader and cur­rent Prime Min­is­ter Vik­tor Orbán, János Áder, the cur­rent Pres­i­dent of Hun­gary, and Lás­zló Kövér, the pres­i­dent of the par­lia­ment. In 1989 Vik­tor Orbán rose to inter­na­tion­al promi­nence after a speech he gave at the rein­ter­ment of Imre Nagy, Hungary’s for­mer prime min­is­ter who led the 1956 revolt against the Sovi­ets. In his speech Orbán spoke out for a peace­ful rev­o­lu­tion and demand­ed the imme­di­ate removal of Sovi­et troops from the coun­try. In the same year, some mem­bers of the par­ty par­tic­i­pat­ed in pro-democ­ra­cy protests in Prague, where Tamás Deutsch – a cur­rent Fidesz MEP – was arrest­ed. These events helped Fidesz brand itself as a par­ty of free­dom fight­ers, and become an impor­tant polit­i­cal play­er in the country’s tran­si­tion to democ­ra­cy, includ­ing its par­tic­i­pa­tion in the so called Nation­al Round­table Talks, a set of legal­is­tic dis­cus­sions between the old gov­ern­ment and demo­c­ra­t­ic polit­i­cal orga­ni­za­tions about the shape of Hungary’s new democracy.

In 1990 Fidesz had 22 mem­bers in the Hun­gar­i­an par­lia­ment, and main­tained very close ties with the lib­er­al SZDSZ par­ty (Alliance of Free Democ­rats). How­ev­er, some of the lib­er­al mem­bers left Fidesz already in 1993 (to join SZDSZ). After SZDSZ got into a coali­tion with the suc­ces­sor of the com­mu­nist par­ty (MSZP – Hun­gar­i­an Social­ist Par­ty) in 1994, Orbán and his par­ty – who bare­ly made the 5 per­cent thresh­old to secure a place in leg­is­la­ture – used this oppor­tu­ni­ty to team up with the con­ser­v­a­tives (MDF – Hun­gar­i­an Demo­c­ra­t­ic Forum, who gov­erned Hun­gary between 1990 and 1994), and repo­si­tion them­selves as the par­ty of the prop­er­tied bour­geoisie: a nation­al con­ser­v­a­tive par­ty with inter­ven­tion­ist eco­nom­ic poli­cies and a very con­ser­v­a­tive stance on social issues. This turned out to be a suc­cess­ful tac­tic, as in 1998 Fidesz won the nation­al elec­tion, and Orbán was giv­en a chance to form a gov­ern­ment — at the age of 35!

In Orbán’s first term (1998–2002) his way of gov­ern­ing did not pro­duce the same waves of inter­na­tion­al crit­i­cism as the sec­ond Orbán gov­ern­ment did after 2010. Even though there were claims about the par­ty being cor­rupt and “illib­er­al” already, at the time there still were a lib­er­al wing in the par­ty and a strong oppo­si­tion in par­lia­ment to act as checks on the gov­ern­ment.[1]

Same, same but different

Over the years Orbán has paid much atten­tion to giv­ing his vot­ers the impres­sion that the core mes­sage of the par­ty has not changed. He still pos­es as a free­dom fight­er who wants to pro­tect his peo­ple, but with the years he has adapt­ed his orig­i­nal top­ics to the chang­ing polit­i­cal envi­ron­ment. The nation­al­ism experts Cas Mud­de and Erin K Jenne argue that Poland’s Law and Jus­tice Par­ty and Fidesz are in this sense very sim­i­lar, as both claim that their often crit­i­cized poli­cies rep­re­sent the real­iza­tion of the unful­filled promis­es of 1989, which were sab­o­taged by “the com­mu­nists and dis­si­dents who signed the pact­ed transitions.”

When Fidesz unex­pect­ed­ly lost the elec­tion in 2002, the party’s slo­gan became “the home­land can­not be in oppo­si­tion.” From now on Orbán and his par­ty start­ed to build their mes­sages on demo­niz­ing the gov­ern­ing par­ties and the Hun­gar­i­an left as ene­mies of the peo­ple. Once they made it back into pow­er in 2010, they defined an addi­tion­al set of ene­mies: inter­na­tion­al finan­cial insti­tu­tions (espe­cial­ly the IMF), the EU and the West­ern polit­i­cal elites who – accord­ing to Orbán – threat­en the country’s nation­al sov­er­eign­ty. And soon after came NGOs who Fidesz sees as for­eign agents paid from abroad to dis­rupt Orbán’s gov­ern­ment. And final­ly, since 2015, asy­lum seek­ers who, accord­ing to the government’s pro­pa­gan­da machine, are “eco­nom­ic migrants” who threat­en Europe’s cul­ture and even survival.

Illib­er­al­ism on the rise

Accord­ing to the Hun­gar­i­an polit­i­cal sci­en­tist József Bay­er, Orbán has adopt­ed prac­tices from oth­er pop­ulist par­ties as an oppo­si­tion politi­cian, includ­ing the per­son-cen­tered strate­gic use of the media (and the cre­ation of an own media empire)[2], as well as the estab­lish­ment of nation­al con­sul­ta­tion bod­ies. When in pow­er, he also start­ed to use the rhetoric of Euroscep­tic move­ments, declar­ing, for exam­ple, that the main­stream polit­i­cal par­ties do not rep­re­sent the real inter­ests of the peo­ple. “In most Euro­pean coun­tries — I could hon­est­ly say 90 per­cent of Euro­pean coun­tries — there is a gap between the opin­ion of the peo­ple and the pol­i­cy pur­sued by the elite,” Orbán said to Politi­co last year. But when it comes to gov­ern­ing, his declared influ­ences can be found east of the EU. He has named a few of them in his wide­ly crit­i­cized speech in 2014: Chi­na, Sin­ga­pore, Rus­sia and Turkey are the role mod­els for the illib­er­al democ­ra­cy he wants to build in Hun­gary, because in his opin­ion “[l]iberal democ­ra­cy can’t remain glob­al­ly competitive.”

In this illib­er­al sys­tem, Orbán’s gov­ern­ment is defined as the rep­re­sen­ta­tive of the nation, while Lib­er­al­ism and lib­er­al democ­ra­cy are treat­ed as the sources of every­thing that went wrong in soci­ety and the econ­o­my. Its ide­ol­o­gy is a nation­al col­lec­tivis­tic ide­ol­o­gy that favors the nation­al com­mu­ni­ty over the indi­vid­ual, and favors inter­ven­tions in the cul­tur­al, social and eco­nom­ic sphere.[3] In terms of poli­cies, this illib­er­al­ism has meant — among oth­ers — that Orbán and his gov­ern­ment are impos­ing a strong grip on the media and are exert­ing influ­ence over the court sys­tem. His gov­ern­ment also start­ed build­ing a fence at the south­ern bor­der of the coun­try to keep refugees out at a time when Germany’s Angela Merkel was still advo­cat­ing open bor­ders for the peo­ple who fled the war in Syr­ia. In the con­text of the EU, Fidesz’s mem­ber­ship in the Euro­pean People’s Par­ty and its increased coop­er­a­tion with the oth­er three Viseg­rád coun­tries (Poland, Czech Repub­lic and Slo­va­kia) on the refugee issue are cur­rent­ly pro­tect­ing the Orbán gov­ern­ment from seri­ous crit­i­cism and reper­cus­sions inside the EU.

Is being a pop­ulist worth it?

As it stands now, Fidesz will most like­ly stay in pow­er even after the next gen­er­al elec­tion in 2018. There are many rea­sons for this fore­cast: first of all, when com­ing into pow­er in 2010 the par­ty set up a new elec­toral regime that dis­pro­por­tion­al­ly rewards the strongest par­ty. Sec­ond­ly, the par­ty man­aged to suc­cess­ful­ly posi­tion itself in the cen­ter of the polit­i­cal spec­trum between the left­ist oppo­si­tion and Job­bik, a medi­um-sized far-right par­ty, such that no viable coali­tion can threat­en its dom­i­nant posi­tion. More­over, accord­ing to ana­lysts, Orbán has an abil­i­ty “to keep the oppo­si­tion divid­ed and demo­bilised, and his fan base unit­ed and active” even at times when his sup­port seems to dwin­dle. Fur­ther­more, the party’s spin doc­tors have shown plen­ty of expe­ri­ence in suc­cess­ful­ly con­vinc­ing vot­ers to choose Fidesz: before the 2014 elec­tions it was a set of util­i­ty price cuts that brought the nec­es­sary sup­port for Fidesz, while this year it was the anti-refugee rhetoric that helped Orbán’s par­ty rebound vis-a-vis its extreme right-wing com­peti­tor Job­bik. Not to men­tion that the nar­ra­tive about the need to pro­tect the Chris­t­ian nature of Europe has helped Orbán gain a great num­ber of admir­ers in Europe, from with­in the Ger­man CSU (Chris­t­ian Social Union in Bavaria) to mem­bers of the Aus­tri­an FPÖ (Free­dom Par­ty of Aus­tria) and Law and Jus­tice in Poland.

Kriszt­ian Simon is a free­lance jour­nal­ist, cur­rent­ly based in Budapest, Hun­gary. He is about to start his PhD in 2016 at the Freie Uni­ver­sität Berlin.


The views and opin­ions expressed in this arti­cle are those of the author.

[1] Bálint Mag­yar, the for­mer Min­is­ter of Edu­ca­tion for Hun­gary, wrote the fol­low­ing about the first Orbán gov­ern­ment (1998–2002): “Pub­lic funds were dis­pensed with­out par­lia­men­tary over­sight and spent to build pri­vate enter­pris­es; pub­lic prop­er­ty was trans­ferred to pri­vate own­er­ship; the men in pow­er used black­mail to tap into pri­vate wealth, and attend­ed to their clien­tèle from pub­lic cof­fers. Ten years ago, the insti­tu­tions of lib­er­al democ­ra­cy were still in a posi­tion to con­strain this octo­pus. The bat­tle had not yet been decid­ed; Hun­gary was not yet a dic­ta­tor­ship, but mere­ly an Orange Repub­lic.” See Bálint Mag­yar (2012): “Autoc­ra­cy in Action — Hun­gary under Orbán.”

[2] When Fidesz lost the nation­al elec­tion in 2002, Orbán real­ized that it need­ed a “com­plex and effec­tive media port­fo­lio.” There­fore busi­ness­peo­ple close to the par­ty estab­lished Hír Tele­vi­sion, and in Sep­tem­ber 2005, one of the rich­est entre­pre­neurs in Hun­gary, Gábor Széles start­ed his own cable chan­nel, Echo Tele­vi­sion, and acquired the dai­ly print Mag­yar Hír­lap. This Lib­er­al dai­ly was trans­formed into a pop­ulist pro-Fidesz news prod­uct in only 6 months. More about Orbán’s media aspi­ra­tions here: Atti­la Batorfy (2015) — How did the Orbán-Sim­ic­s­ka media empire function?

[3] Accord­ing to the Hun­gar­i­an jour­nal­ist Atti­la Batorfy, dur­ing the sec­ond Orbán gov­ern­ment (2010–2014) the par­ty owned five outdoor/billboard com­pa­nies (Pub­limont, Mahir City­poster, EuroAWK, Euro Pub­lic­i­ty, A Plakát), a nation­al and a Budapest-local com­mer­cial radio sta­tion (Class FM, Music FM), three dai­ly papers (Metropol, Mag­yar Nemzet, Mag­yar Hír­lap), two week­ly papers (Heti Válasz, Demokra­ta), two tele­vi­sion sta­tions (Hír TV, Echo TV), plus the entire pub­lic media (M1, M2, Mag­yar Rádió, MTI News Ser­vice, Duna TV) as well as some allies (TV2, Helyi Téma, MNO, Pesti Srá­cok, etc.). More­over, the two-thirds major­i­ty of Fidesz has helped make func­tion­ing impos­si­ble for some mar­ket com­peti­tors through an adver­tise­ment tax and its amend­ments. The Media Author­i­ty helped to clean the radio mar­ket up for a new radio sta­tion, called Class FM, and Fidesz par­ty-mem­bers start­ed to “sys­tem­at­i­cal­ly attack” pri­vate media com­pa­nies (like Sanoma, Axel Springer’s Világgaz­daság, Ori­go, Index, RTL Klub). More about this here: Atti­la Batorfy (2015) — How did the Orbán-Sim­ic­s­ka media empire function?

Title pic­ture: Orbán giv­ing a speech in Budapest, 27 Feb­ru­ary 2015, cour­tesy of Derzsi Elekes Andor (own work), released under Cre­ative Commons.

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