Who’s afraid of Viktor Orbán?

By Vic­to­ria Kup­sch, Lena Herb­st and Ros Tay­lor.

Hun­gar­i­ans have re-elect­ed Vik­tor Orbán’s par­ty, Fidesz, which received 49 per­cent of the pop­u­lar vote, giv­ing him a fourth term as prime min­is­ter. By his own account, Orbán and Fidesz have trans­formed Hun­gary from a post-com­mu­nist state strug­gling with aus­ter­i­ty mea­sures to an out­spo­ken and new­ly pros­per­ous mem­ber of the Euro­pean Union. As he put it in 2010: “Strong faith helped our nation to always get back on its feet after dev­as­tat­ing tragedies, crises, and wars, and nev­er, not even in the most depress­ing moments of our his­to­ry, let us give up our free­dom and independence”.

But Orbán’s ascen­dan­cy has come at a high price. Orbán has embraced a vision of ‘illib­er­al democ­ra­cy’ that con­founds his oppo­nents. He has under­mined demo­c­ra­t­ic insti­tu­tions with an assault on the checks and bal­ances of pow­er, and pil­lo­ried ‘dan­ger­ous immi­grants’. His next tar­get was the EU itself; his par­ty led a “Stop Brus­sels” cam­paign in 2017 with unprece­dent­ed false claims, includ­ing that the EU was keep­ing tax­es and ener­gy prices high.

Accord­ing to Atti­la Juhász, the deputy direc­tor of Polit­i­cal Cap­i­tal, a lead­ing research insti­tute based in Budapest, Hun­gar­i­ans are not notably Euroscep­tic. But Orbán’s empha­sis on nation­al­ism and tra­di­tion strikes a chord with many voters:

“Com­pared to West­ern Euro­pean nations, Hun­gar­i­ans con­sid­er civ­il and polit­i­cal rights to be less impor­tant. They are less active par­tic­i­pants in every­day pol­i­tics, they are less tol­er­ant of opin­ions diverg­ing from the views of the major­i­ty, and they con­sid­er self-expres­sion to be less important.”

For these Hun­gar­i­ans, “Orbán’s pop­ulist rhetoric con­veys that he wants to pro­tect Europe and Hun­gary from immi­grants com­ing from out­side the EU, as well as the bureau­cra­cy of the Union and the main­stream polit­i­cal elite.”

Sim­i­lar­ly, Hun­gar­i­ans are not espe­cial­ly Chris­t­ian. In Europe, only the Czech Repub­lic has more athe­ists. Yet Orbán has been able to instru­men­talise reli­gion — using his influ­ence over var­i­ous branch­es of the Church — in order to con­trast Hun­gary with oth­er nations. Fidesz offi­cial­ly recog­nised Chris­tian­i­ty in the pre­am­ble of the wide­ly crit­i­cised renewed Hun­gar­i­an con­sti­tu­tion in 2011: We recog­nise the role of Chris­tian­i­ty in pre­serv­ing nation­hood. We val­ue the var­i­ous reli­gious tra­di­tions of our cul­ture.” In this way, belief in the nation is sub­sti­tut­ed for tra­di­tion­al belief in God.

Fidesz’s path to dom­i­nance began in 1989, when it was found­ed by stu­dents as a lib­er­al coun­ter­part to the com­mu­nist “Alliance of Young Democ­rats”. But after dis­ap­point­ing elec­tion results in 1994, it trans­formed itself from a lib­er­al to a nation­al­ist-con­ser­v­a­tive par­ty. The gam­ble paid off. With only a few set­backs, Fidesz and Orbán have dom­i­nat­ed Hun­gar­i­an pol­i­tics since 2000. In 2011, he reformed the elec­toral sys­tem to ben­e­fit the strongest par­ty: under the pre-2011 sys­tem, accord­ing to Juhász, Fidesz would rarely have been able to secure a major­i­ty in par­lia­ment. He was even able to form a coali­tion with the anti-abor­tion, anti-gay mar­riage Chris­t­ian Demo­c­ra­t­ic People’s Par­ty (KNDP) in 2014 in order to retain his par­lia­men­tary major­i­ty (since lost) and hold on to the premiership.

Almost effort­less­ly mak­ing the point that Hun­gary had only been a sta­ble coun­try since he became prime min­is­ter, Orbán used his re-elec­tion in 2014 to praise Chi­na, India and Rus­sia: “We are doing our best to find ways of part­ing with West­ern Euro­pean dog­mas, mak­ing our­selves inde­pen­dent from them.” A democ­ra­cy, he told Hun­gar­i­ans, “is not nec­es­sar­i­ly liberal”.

This is the root of Orbán’s finesse. In his world­view, illib­er­al­ism is some­thing to be proud of — indeed some­thing to strive for. After 2014, he was able to trans­form crit­i­cism of his illib­er­al­i­ty into a compliment.

This may sound extra­or­di­nary to some out­side Hun­gary. But as Juhász explains: “For many West­ern Euro­peans the idea of build­ing an illib­er­al democ­ra­cy is absurd and a vio­la­tion of demo­c­ra­t­ic val­ues, but for many Hun­gar­i­ans this is exact­ly what they want.” The country’s sys­temic cor­rup­tion and the assault on checks and bal­ances are the basis for Orbàn’s power.

This is where inter­na­tion­al NGOs, phil­an­thropists and the EU come in. Although pub­lic sup­port of EU mem­ber­ship among Hun­gar­i­ans is still rel­a­tive­ly high, obser­va­tion and crit­i­cism from inter­na­tion­al organ­i­sa­tions is an obsta­cle to the cre­ation of Orbán’s illib­er­al Hun­gary. (“These are not civil­ians com­ing against us, but polit­i­cal activists attempt­ing to pro­mote for­eign inter­ests”, he said in 2014.)

The result was the Hun­gar­i­an Par­lia­ment Bill T/14967 on the Trans­paren­cy of Orga­ni­za­tions Receiv­ing For­eign Funds (June 13 2017), which requires NGOs receiv­ing for­eign funds over a cer­tain year­ly thresh­old to reg­is­ter and label them­selves as such organ­i­sa­tions on their web­site and in their publications.

Although his stance on immi­gra­tion has played suc­cess­ful­ly on pub­lic fears, health­care and cor­rup­tion are now more salient issues and might be a crit­i­cal fac­tor in decid­ing whether Orbán’s par­ty will pre­vail in the long-term. For now – and in spite of a record high turnout – Fidesz, by obtain­ing 133 of the parliament’s 199 seats, suceed­ed in secur­ing a “super-major­i­ty” and a third term for Orbán.

Look more close­ly and the eco­nom­ic mir­a­cle is decid­ed­ly par­tial. While job­less­ness has fall­en and wages have been ris­ing in the past two years, there is lit­tle will to improve the lives of the three mil­lion Hun­gar­i­ans who have fall­en behind. Pub­lic spend­ing, says Juhász has been redi­rect­ed towards pen­sion­ers and the mid­dle class so as to lim­it polit­i­cal dis­sent. Those who are unhap­py with the regime often leave to work abroad. The oppo­si­tion is por­trayed as divid­ed, civ­il soci­ety is large­ly dis­en­gaged and Orbán has no obvi­ous challenger.

The glo­ri­ous future Orbán promis­es will have a con­sid­er­able impact on the rest of Europe. (“Go for it, Hun­gary! Go for it, Hun­gar­i­ans!” he declared ear­li­er this year.) He regards Aus­tria, the UK, the Viseg­rad nations and Rus­sia as allies and has emerged as the spear­head of a pow­er­ful group of right wing nation­al­ists from South-East­ern Europe. By con­trast, the EU can seem too rule-based, too slow and too order­ly to chal­lenge a Union made for coop­er­a­tion among like-mind­ed democ­ra­cies – and with anoth­er term in office ahead, there­in lies the main chal­lenge for the EU and the future of the open soci­eties in Europe.

Vic­to­ria Kup­sch is d|part’s project lead for the Voic­es on Val­ues project. Lena Herb­st is a Social Sci­ences stu­dent at the TU Braun­schweig and was an intern at d|part in 2018. Ros Tay­lor is Research Man­ag­er for the LSE Truth, Trust & Tech­nol­o­gy Com­mis­sion, based in the Media Pol­i­cy Project with­in the Depart­ment of Media and Com­mu­ni­ca­tions at LSE.


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

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