As a small boy working in the fields in his native village of Felscut, Viktor Orbán learned an important lesson: When you spot a rat, kill it immediately before it can bite. Given that the Hungarian Prime Minister has become seemingly unassailable, expert at putting down threats to his authority before they can credibly challenge him, this would seem to be a lesson that has served him well.
Nor is this the only way in which Hungary’s system of government is a reflection of Orbán’s personal history. Critics as well as admirers have acknowledged Orbán’s charm and intelligence, but as a boy Hungary’s future Prime Minister displayed the same pugnacity that today bedevils his opponents. He was, in his own words, “an unbelievably bad child. Badly misbehaved, cheeky, violent. Not at all likeable. I was thrown out of all the schools.” Although small for his years, he gained a reputation for fiercely retaliating if provoked. This tendency has not deserted him: “If I’m hit once, I hit back twice,” he has said. Talking to students at the high school that he attended as a youth, he added: “Politics is a battle . . . If I stand in a field with a sword in my hand and three people attack me, I can’t start arguing or moralizing; then there is only one task: slaughter all three of them.”
However, as his biographer Paul Lendvai has recognized, Orbán does not depend on naked force like Vladimir Putin, with whom he is often mistakenly compared. Through the distribution of patronage Orbán has assembled around himself a great army of devotees—one that extends far beyond his Administration, the military, the police, and the intelligence services into the courts, universities, broadcasting, the press, business, and even sports administration. To be sure, this process of stacking the decks with Orbán loyalists is not complete. But it is one that looks set to continue during his fourth term of office, and which has led to the emergence of a new privileged class, similar in significant respects to the nomenklatura that existed under communism and from whose depredations Orbán once pledged to rescue Hungary.
At an early stage, Orbán discovered that his natural combativeness and desire for victory—preferably by an overwhelming margin—play well with a nation that has experienced more than its share of crushing national defeats and humiliations. His longstanding campaign against the Hungarian-born American financier and philanthropist George Soros is a reflection of Orbán’s need for an enemy—and of the fact that there is no one in Hungarian politics or society remotely worthy of the role. By putting Soros’s support for immigration at the center of the Hungarian election campaign, Orbán turned his former benefactor, now number one enemy, into an unwitting election aide. The strategy paid off: On April 8, the 58-year-old Orbán won a third consecutive term as Prime Minister (having previously filled the role from 1998 to 2002), and secured a two-thirds supermajority that gives Fidesz, the ruling party, the power to alter the constitution. In all, Fidesz won 133 of the 199 parliamentary seats by picking up 49.6 percent of the vote. The extreme nationalist Jobbik party (19.2 percent) won 26 seats and the Social Democrats (12 percent) won 20 seats.
As his supporters were quick to point out, this was as clear an endorsement as any European leader has achieved in recent times. And since Fidesz won almost half the popular vote, it cannot be explained away as the result of gerrymandering: Almost any imaginable electoral system would have given Orbán a substantial victory. That the 2018 election was free, in the sense that a near-majority got the outcome they voted for, there can be no doubt.
This highly combative and supremely self-confident leader now promises to punish his enemies within Hungary and to directly challenge the European Union, not just over immigration quotas and post-Brexit funding arrangements, but over plans for Europe’s political future. His aim is to reverse the direction of the European project, abandoning the goal of an ever closer union in favor of restoring the power of member states. Whatever Orbán’s faults, he cannot be accused of lacking ambition.
In the past some conservative commentators, myself included, have been reluctant or slow to criticize Orbán. We share his distaste for political correctness and his dislike of the transnational progressive agenda, and admire his determination to stand up to the EU bureaucracy in Brussels, as well as his considerable political skills. But the fact that many conservatives share his dislikes does not make him a conservative; he neither describes himself as such nor behaves like one. Nor should Orbán’s conservative sympathizers conclude that the election was fair as well as free. Since his surprise defeat in 2002, which caused him to rethink his approach to key political issues, nothing in Orbán’s history has suggested that he favors a level playing field; in fact, quite the reverse is true.1 There is no good reason to doubt the finding of the election monitors from the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE), who declared that the vote was characterized by “intimidating and xenophobic rhetoric, media bias, and opaque campaign financing” as well as “a pervasive overlap between state and ruling party resources.”
Some may object that in isolating one election and seeking to impose a single standard of “fairness” irrespective of context, the OSCE obscures the political direction of travel in Hungary. But if one examines the findings of its reports on the 2010 and 2014 elections, it is impossible to avoid the conclusion that Hungary under Orbán has become increasingly centralized, that media bias has become decidedly more marked, and that policies with the nominal aim of creating a civic-minded middle class—without which no democratic society can long prosper—have in fact been used to reward loyalists. Not surprisingly, Hungary performs worse in the World Bank’s Worldwide Governance Indicators today than it did a decade ago, while the Heritage Foundation’s most recent Index of Economic Freedom reports a decline in government integrity, classing Hungary as “repressed.”
Despite these trends and Hungary’s lackluster economic performance, Orbán has undoubtedly given many thousands of Hungarians, especially those living in rural areas and in cities other than Budapest, a greater sense of identity and national self-confidence, while satisfying their obvious desire for international attention—even if much recent comment has been critical. Indeed, few contemporary leaders have faced as fierce a barrage of international criticism as Orbán has. In the U.S. media Orbán is routinely described as belonging to the far Right. John McCain once described him as a neo-fascist; others have dispensed with the “neo.” There appears to be broad agreement that that he is a leading proponent of a new wave of populism that is sweeping the Western world, a claim that is advanced by those who regard populism as the political equivalent of an infectious disease. He is also accused of anti-Semitism. But to truly understand Orbán requires looking beyond the clichés, to work out which of the accusations leveled against him have merit and which do not.
It is true that Orbán no longer aspires to play a leading role in integrating the Central European states into a wider Atlantic community based on the market economy, democracy, and the rule of law. By this point, he has entirely abandoned his former commitment to that cause. But the “far Right” label does as much to mislead as to inform. It is doubtful, for instance, whether Orbán’s highly interventionist and increasingly centralized economic policy can be so described. This has included bank nationalization combined with anti-banker rhetoric; the near-complete state monopolization of energy utilities, reversing previous governments’ encouragement of foreign private investment in the sector; and the banning of private majority shareholding, both foreign and domestic, in environmental utilities.
If Orbán’s economic policy cannot sensibly be described as right-wing, neither can his foreign policy be placed on the usual Left/Right spectrum. For example, his warm embrace of Putin is not the reflection of political ideology or principle. It may simply be a sign that Orbán, having become disenchanted with the European and U.S. political establishments, has concluded that there is no reason why he should not play Russia and the West off against one another. Orbán’s friend, the novelist Tibor Fischer, who has put up spirited defenses of the Hungarian Prime Minister in the British media, has put the matter succinctly: “Orbán isn’t about Right or Left. Orbán is all about Orbán. Orbán is about winning.”
Though he lacks a defining philosophy, Orbán does employ certain ingrained political habits familiar to Hungary. He does not resemble Putin so much as János Kádár, the Hungarian communist chief who helped the Russians crush the 1956 revolution but who subsequently enjoyed a considerable degree of popularity during his three decades in office. As during the Kádár era, the authority of the leader remains unquestioned within a highly disciplined party whose members seldom, if ever, stray off message. Like Kádár, Orbán tends to regard those who oppose the leader as enemies of the people and nation, and treats them accordingly. “There’s a legally elected and sovereign government,” said Zoltan Kovacs, Orbán’s spokesman following the election. “When unelected people or organizations lobby or speak out against the government, that is basically against the country.”
Orbán, who has an unrivaled grasp of the fears and anxieties of his complex countrymen, understands well their yearning for the stability and continuity of the Kadar years of goulash communism. At the same time, he recognizes the enduring public regard for Admiral Horthy, the Hungarian regent from 1920 to 1944 who struggled to restore Hungarian pride and land after the Treaty of Trianon, but who formed an alliance with Hitler after the failure to reach an alliance with the Western powers. Orbán’s repeated praise for Horthy may have puzzled outsiders, but his exploitation of the public’s enduring regard for these two figures is one of the keys to his political success. As the late Tibor Pethő, a distinguished Hungarian journalist, put it: “The feelings for Horthy and Kadar are not mutually exclusive. . .they splendidly coexist in the average Hungarian soul.”
The term “fascist” has become increasingly a term of abuse used by those on the Left to describe those on the Right, and consequently lacks precision. But if the term is intended to signify adherence to a distinctive political philosophy, he may be acquitted of the charge. Orbán may well have a superficial interest in political ideas, but they do not form the basis of his approach to policy. Orbán is not about principle or ideology of any kind.
A great deal of the animus directed towards Orbán internationally is the result of his opposition to immigration from the Middle East and North Africa, and his decision to build a high-tech wall along the borders with Serbia and Croatia to prevent the arrival of hundreds of thousands of immigrants beginning in 2015. He has since asked the European Union to pay half of the $1 billion cost. Such are Hungary’s deep historic fears of invasion and foreign interference: Had Orbán not acted swiftly and decisively to oppose Merkel’s initial open-door policy, his party would have been almost certainly swept aside, and Hungary’s political institutions with it. The consequences for Central Europe, where majority opinion strongly favors Orbán’s approach on the issue, would have been calamitous—and the resultant shock waves sufficient to produce a greater crisis in the European Union than any it has known.
The Western journalists who poured into Budapest in the late summer of 2015 concentrated on the often pitiable plight of some migrants, ignoring the physical and administrative problems their huge surge presented and the government’s determined attempt to uphold the Dublin Regulation. They largely ignored, too, the unreasonable demands of the migrants in seeking to use Hungary as a conduit to the country of their choice, as well as instances of violence and lawlessness. They failed utterly to grasp the enormity of what was at stake.
None of this, however, is to justify Orbán’s vilification campaign against George Soros, the man who once provided Orbán with a scholarship to Oxford—to study grassroots democracy, ironically enough—and who symbolizes the liberal internationalism that Orbán so despises. This campaign, which began in 2016 and intensified with moves to close Soros’s Central European University (whose future remains uncertain), became the central element of the Fidesz election drive in 2018. The party created hundreds of giant posters displaying a grinning Mr. Soros besides the words, “Don’t let Soros have the last laugh” followed in smaller letters by the message “99 percent reject illegal immigration.”
The campaign inevitably strengthened the accusations of anti-Semitism often leveled against Orbán. Until this year, it was possible to defend the Hungarian Prime Minister against the charge, since it was difficult to find instances where he had done or said anything explicitly anti-Semitic. Moreover, it could be pointed out that he had inaugurated Holocaust Memorial Day, passed a Holocaust denial law, and had announced a zero-tolerance policy on anti-Semitism. Orbán’s defenders have at times conceded that he is willing to cynically exploit the anti-Semitism of others for political advantage—hence the invariable descriptions of Soros as an “international financier” and the awarding of state prizes to a journalist and a broadcaster with rabid anti-Semitic views—even while insisting he did not harbor such sentiments himself.
The anti-Soros posters have made such a defense less credible. And in a speech delivered shortly before the election, Orbán stooped lower than ever before:
I know that this struggle is difficult for all of us. I understand if some of us are even scared. It is understandable because our opponent is different than we are. Not straightforward, but hiding, not direct but crafty, not honest but base, not national but international, doesn’t believe in labor [but] rather speculates with money, has no country of its own because he feels the world is his in its entirety. Not generous but an avenger and always attacks the heart, especially, if the heart is colored red-white-and-green [Hungary’s national colors]. . .Now we are sending home uncle Gyuri [a nickname for “George”] together with his network. We ask you to go back to America, make the Americans happy, not us!
Jewish organizations were not the only ones shocked by the crude, unambiguously anti-Semitic nature of these remarks, which have left a permanent stain on Orbán’s reputation. Meanwhile Antal Rogán, the minister in charge of Orbán’s cabinet office who heads up his propaganda efforts, has since been rewarded for his role in the election with additional powers, despite past involvement in financial scandals that would have destroyed the careers of ministers in most democratic countries. Janos Lazar, Rogan’s longstanding rival as aspiring heir apparent, the one Minister who appeared to have a license to dissent from the party line, has announced his withdrawal from national politics, but is rumored to have been sacked.
Corruption and cronyism go hand in hand in Orbán’s soft authoritarian state. Direkt36, a popular online news portal specializing in the subject, has exposed graft in Budapest’s municipal government, published embarrassing details of state contracts won by companies owned by members of Orbán’s family, and reported on a prostitution ring that allegedly catered to legislators and senior government officials. Corruption, of course, is a serious problem throughout Central and Eastern Europe, and certainly did not begin with Orbán. But anecdotal evidence, as well as Hungary’s falling position in Transparency International’s Corruption Perception Index, suggests that the problem is worsening, and may even have become institutionalized.
The country’s public procurement system clearly suffers from endemic corruption, discouraging the foreign investment that the country still badly needs if its sorry wage levels—among the lowest in the European Union—are to rise. Between 65 and 70 percent of public tenders are believed to involve corrupt transactions, with the government handing out public funds to those with close links to the ruling party. More than half of companies expect to give “gifts” to procurement officials to secure contracts. This is par for the course, and hardly a shock to ordinary Hungarians; according to a recent opinion poll, 60 percent of voters believe their government to be corrupt.
Cronyism and the need to reward loyalists explains the abysmal quality of some of those appointed to high office. Tibor Fischer may be Orbán’s friend, but this has not stopped him from complaining about the incompetence and dishonesty of those in Orbán’s entourage: “Pure suits and dullards abound . . . There are a lot of people close to Orbán who I wouldn’t trust with a ten-pound note to go to the shop to buy a bar of chocolate. And I am questioning their probity and their competence. If I know about the dodginess of some of his entourage, most of Budapest must know, let alone Orbán. So why does he keep them on?”
András Lánczi, a long-time Orbán adviser and Rector of Corvinus University in Budapest, has suggested that what critics describe as corruption is not really corruption at all but a policy of rewarding entrepreneurs in order to build a strong Hungary and a prosperous middle class: “If something is done in the national interest, then it is not corruption.” What others term corruption is in fact the “supreme policy” of the ruling party, he has said. Since risk-taking is at the core of entrepreneurship—and handing out favors to business cronies reduces or even eliminates risk—Lanczi’s defense rests on a poor understanding of economics and of the means by which a civically conscious middle class comes into being.
At present, the Hungarian government is moving forward with an “anti-Soros law” that would force non-governmental organizations dealing with migration to seek licenses from Hungary’s interior ministry, involving vetting by security services. If granted a license, an NGO would potentially have to pay a 25 percent tax on foreign funding. Soros has responded by announcing that he will withdraw his staff from Hungary.
Orbán is not alone in being irritated by George Soros’s claim to have captured the moral high ground on immigration, and his Open Society Foundations’ tendency to treat opposing arguments as illegitimate or racially motivated. Like other populists, Orbán grasps that a division has opened up between large swathes of the population and liberal elites on this and related issues. But that should not stay conservatives’ criticism of measures that will further stifle the growth of civil society. Thanks to 45 years of communism, there is scarcely a tradition of private patronage in Hungary. Apart from the ones backed by Soros, non-governmental organizations are either very small or poorly funded—or turn out on closer inspection not to be independent at all, but rather funded by the government and available to do its bidding.
This state of affairs is presumably what Orbán meant when he talked of creating an “illiberal democracy.” But when Orbán has slain all his enemies, liberal or otherwise, his country will have to find a better way forward—or Hungary will have no democracy worthy of the name.
1 József Debreczeni, a former adviser, has written: “From that point on, he spent his time preparing so that if he ever won power again, he wouldn’t lose it.”