Dispatch

The Autocrat Inside the EU

The Autocrat Inside the EU

BUDAPEST, Hungary — In late July, Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban delivered a bold speech in the Transylvanian town of Tusnadfurdo. His message, articulated at a retreat of Hungarian leaders, was unquestionably controversial; to many observers of Hungarian politics, it was nothing short of galling. Orban announced plans to make his country an "illiberal state," citing some of the world’s more repressive regimes — Russia and China, for instance — as models.

"The new state that we are building is an illiberal state, a non-liberal state," he said. "It does not deny foundational values of liberalism, [of] freedom…. But it does not make this ideology a central element of state organization."

It was Orban’s brashest anti-democratic salvo since his conservative Fidesz party swept to power in 2010 — and the bar was already high.

The "end of liberal democracy" speech, as it has been dubbed by Hungary’s opposition media, caps years of wrangling between Orban and European Union officials over measures that critics say have removed democratic checks and balances and have cemented the prime minister’s control over key institutions. In the span of a few short years, using his party’s two-thirds parliamentary majority, Orban has passed a new constitution and restrictive media laws, limited the powers of his country’s Constitutional Court, introduced an election law that led critics to call polls this April "free but not fair," and installed party loyalists in all important state bodies, including the central bank. There are fears that the "Putinization of Hungary" is occurring — a concern that carries all the more weight given Orban’s increasingly cozy relationship with Moscow.

For some who have known Orban longer than his recent years as prime minister, however, his speech marks something more: the final step in a steady tumble from his once-elevated status among Central Europe’s most promising democratic reformers to one of Europe’s most worrisome autocrats.

This summer marked the 25th anniversary of Orban’s remarkable ascendancy onto the political scene. A little-known student opposition figure, Orban became an instant anti-communist hero for a landmark address he delivered in June 1989 on the steps of Budapest’s Heroes’ Square, demanding that Soviet troops withdraw from Hungary. The country, along with the rest of communist Europe, was teetering on the cusp of monumental political change. At age 26, as the leader of a group of liberal law students who founded Fidesz (short for the Alliance of Young Democrats), Orban was among the wave of exciting new opposition voices who emerged across Central Europe, pushing for new political freedoms and democratic reforms.

"The basis of our worldview is the philosophy of human rights," Orban told Hungarian political weekly HVG in August 1989. "We believe that society should be constructed in a way that it gives the most possible freedom to individuals." He called himself a "social liberal" who was fighting for "Western-style democracy," and he cited as his political role models "leaders of opposition movements, from the participants of the ’53 Berlin workers’ uprising, the street fighters of the ’56 revolution to the East European democratic opposition of the 1980s."

For his provocative style, Orban was the pride and hope of Hungary’s older generation of dissidents — the "ultimate anarcho-liberal," as former democratic opposition leader Miklos Haraszti recalled in a 2002 essay, skilled "in the art of introducing new freedoms by calculated provocation," and on whose presence "filled us for a decade with the complacent belief that a rich supply of political talent was coming our way."

Orban remains a rich political talent. At age 51, he is a three-term prime minister and a fierce political competitor, as formidable while in power as he is in the opposition. His agility in the political arena has enabled him to shape Hungarian party politics and, to a large degree, the country’s deeply polarized post-1989 political culture as a whole.

But over the decades, Orban has transformed Fidesz from a small, liberal democratic party –which eked into parliament in Hungary’s first free election, in 1990, with roughly 9 percent of the vote and just 21 seats — into the most dominant conservative political force in Hungary and among the most powerful such forces in the European Union. Today, the party has virtually unchecked power.

This all raises the obvious question: What happened to Orban to cause such a transformation? The answer is complicated, but at the heart of it is the fact that Orban has proved the consummate politician. He is primarily interested in power, no matter the ideological or other costs it takes to gain it. He has embraced a grab bag of rhetoric and policies, picking and choosing whatever he believes (usually correctly) will allow him and his party to maintain a tight grasp on Hungary. And he has succeeded, much to the dismay of many Hungarian citizens, human rights groups, EU officials — and Orban’s onetime democratic brothers in arms.

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Orban’s immense political success has come amid sharp ideological turns and often deeply contradictory policies that, for lesser politicians, would bring a quick end to most careers. His most dramatic shift occurred in 1993, when Orban steered Fidesz to the right ahead of elections the following year, a power move engineered to scoop up parliamentary seats occupied by the then-governing party, the center-right Hungarian Democratic Forum (MDF). The MDF had lost the support of voters, who were impatient with the party’s ineffectual reforms, and Orban saw an opportunity to move into a vacant political space — even though that space stood in contradiction to Fidesz’s traditional ideology.

The shift fractured Fidesz. Disagreeing with what Orban had done, a handful of founding members migrated to the now-defunct Alliance of Free Democrats (SZDSZ), a party formed by an older generation of opposition democrats, including Haraszti and philosopher Janos Kis. The move also reshuffled the country’s political playing field, creating a deep divide between Hungary’s liberal left and conservative right that remains in place today.

Fidesz suffered a drop in popularity for its defection, but over several years, Orban cannily seized another opportunity: The SZDSZ had formed an alliance with the Socialist Party, the reform-minded wing of Hungary’s former community party. Orban repeatedly and forcefully highlighted the hypocrisy of this union. As Haraszti noted in his 2002 essay, Orban successfully united right-wing forces against the left and "hammer[ed] on the Liberals-Are-Communists theory in order to have a united ‘other side.’"

By 1998, when Fidesz came to power with a governing coalition of conservative parties, Orban had become the emblematic leader of the conservative, Christian right — a near-total reversal of his radical-left beginnings just a decade prior and a position he has maintained ever since. "He realized being a politician is more than just being an anti-communist revolutionary, and he was heavily motivated to climb the political ladder," says Andras Bozoki, a political scientist at Central European University (CEU) in Budapest who served as a Fidesz spokesman in 1990. (This article’s author is an employee of CEU.)

Bozoki says Orban is more of a political "pragmatist" than an ideologue, with a keen ability to spot — or sometimes instigate — political opportunities in order to grab and retain power. Orban also has a unique ability to read and respond to the public’s mood and political culture. He is an "events-driven political animal," says Istvan Hegedus, a leading member of Fidesz in its early days. In the late 1980s, this meant placing himself in the vanguard of the popular democratic movements of the day. In the mid-1990s, this meant capitalizing on the public’s growing disillusionment with democracy, largely the result of the unexpected hardships — unemployment and inflation, for instance — of free market capitalism. Orban has successfully toyed with the public’s democracy fatigue ever since, offering himself and his party as remedies.

To be sure, Orban’s now-hallmark mantra, demonizing the political left as "communists" who plundered state wealth during privatization, is not entirely untrue. Many elites did abuse their favorable positions in the mid-1990s to reap massive profits. Former Prime Minister Ferenc Gyurcsány, for example, became one of the wealthiest people in Hungary as a result of his insider footing. Yet Fidesz has done much the same thing. In recent years, billions of forints have been funneled to elites connected to the party through public and private contracts, which has enriched a growing circle of government-linked oligarchs.

Since 2008, Orban has shifted to the right further still, putting himself at the center of a wave of populist, nationalist movements that sprung up across Europe as a response to the global financial crisis. A small market economy heavily dependent on foreign capital, Hungary was hit hard by the crisis, as Western investors retreated and the country’s currency plummeted — losing a quarter of its value against the euro by 2009. Hungarians were unable to keep up with sharp increases in monthly mortgage payments, and this generated a severe housing crisis. All this was compounded by Hungary’s spiraling debt crisis, and in 2011, Orban was faced with the choices of taking a loan from the International Monetary Fund, introducing unpopular austerity measures, or both.

He responded instead by introducing a package of "unorthodox" economic policies that have included levying a one-off "crisis" tax on the energy, telecommunications, and banking sectors, re-nationalizing a spate of industries — including private pension funds and fuel companies — and passing a measure forcing banks to compensate borrowers for money lost after the currency’s crash. Orban has also said that he aims to bring half the country’s banks under domestic ownership as part of his government’s effort to "consolidate" the banking sector; just this July, the government bought one of the country’s biggest financial institutions, MKB Bank, from its German owners. 

These policies put Hungary’s economy on the rocks, causing market turmoil. Today, though the economy has stabilized, the climate remains hostile to foreign investment.

All the while, Orban has continued to embrace contradiction as he sees fit. As he attacks Western capitalism, for instance, he has cut state support for education and has gutted the bargaining power of Hungary’s labor unions. While he denounces "bureaucrats in Brussels" as imperialist oppressors, Hungary absorbs billions in EU funds. Meanwhile, he has increasingly borrowed rhetoric from Hungary’s far-right Jobbik party, now the country’s second-largest party in parliament — and the only political force that poses any real threat to Orban’s power. Jobbik has been called, among other things, fascist, neo-Nazi, and anti-Semitic. From the party, Orban has snatched and espoused ideas about a strong Hungary, in which ethnic Hungarians dominate. Some observers say Orban’s flirtation with the far right is, like his other moves, a pragmatic decision aimed at ensuring that Fidesz maintains its dominant position — but it also threatens to legitimize extremism.

It is likely that his July speech at Tusnadfurdo was Orban’s latest effort to position himself at the forefront of what he sees as the next political movement that will garner him popular support: backlash against liberal democracy across Europe. According to Bozoki, Orban is very successful at identifying all of Hungary’s social problems and political complaints and pledging responses to them — "while not actually solving any of them. He is not building hospitals and schools. He is building football stadiums." (Orban, an avid football fan, has used state coffers toward building a fleet of football stadiums across Hungary, including an estimated $17 million arena in his home village of Felcsut.)

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Unsurprisingly, Orban has drawn comparisons to the strongman in the EU’s backyard: Vladimir Putin. And, it seems, he has no problem with this. Both in style and substance, the similarities between President Putin’s Russia and Orban’s Hungary are already striking: Orban’s growing concentration of political power, buoyed by a cartel of new Fidesz oligarchs controlling a wide spectrum of key industries (the commercial media, in particular), bears resemblance to the Putin model. Likewise, Orban’s recent attacks on NGOs as "political activists attempting to promote foreign interests" — a move critics say is aimed at shutting down civil rights groups and investigative-reporting NGOs, which are often critical of his policies — mirrors Putin’s mounting efforts to drive out NGOs, including a new law forcing groups to register as "foreign agents."

Since his re-election this April, Orban’s anti-West saber rattling has only become more caustic, while he has simultaneously forged new economic alliances with Russia as part of his "opening to the East" policy. Just days before the April vote, Orban finalized a $13 billion loan agreement with Putin to rebuild Hungary’s Paks Nuclear Power Plant — a deal that indebts Hungary to Russia for the next 30 years. And at his "illiberal state" speech in July, Orban openly endorsed Russia as a "successful" model of political organization.

International observers have called Orban a "Trojan horse" for Moscow in the EU. According to the prime minister’s international spokesperson, Zoltan Kovacs, however, "Hungarian-Russian relations are pragmatic, and the Hungarian government maintains them in the spirit of representing Hungarian national interests."

For Orban, money from the east comes with fewer strings — and less required transparency — than money from Brussels and the West. The prime minister’s links with Russia also give him a powerful playing card in his dealings with the EU, which is struggling with rising skepticism of its regional role and lingering threats of dissolution. Orban has been savvy, toying with the EU’s deepest fears and thus forcing Brussels to play diplomatic softball with him. Indeed, his moves since 2010 have plunged the EU into a crisis, exposing its inability — or unwillingness — to enforce the democratic principles and norms on which the union is based.

In 2011, more than 70 prominent members of the former democratic opposition in Central Europe — many of them Orban’s former colleagues, including former Czech President Vaclav Havel — issued an impassioned plea (the "Budapest Appeal") to the EU, warning of the state that Orban was building within EU borders: "Today, the goal of a Europe united in liberty is in grave danger," the appeal stated. "What the European Union meant to prevent, and what many thought to be impossible, has now materialized." The group called on "European Parliamentarians and Commissioners, on Europe’s governments and parties to build clear standards of compliance with the values of democracy."

The EU, however, failed to produce any substantive response to Orban’s maneuverings. After numerous volleys between Budapest and Brussels, Hungarian lawmakers made minor revisions to some legislation, including the media laws and the constitution. Many on Hungary’s left, who had been looking to Brussels for solutions, were left bewildered.

Amid the recent international clamor over the "illiberal state" speech, the EU has again largely remained silent. The New York Times‘ editorial board called on the European Commission "to respond with more than the usual admonitions and hand-wringing"; it said the commission should cut its $29.33 billion in subsidies to Hungary and suspend the country’s EU voting rights.*   Yet so far, nothing has materialized.

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Orban the democratic freedom fighter appears lost to history. Yet in responding to questions about the prime minister’s "illiberal state" speech, Kovacs, his spokesperson, insisted that Orban has been "consistent with regard to this issue for a long time by now." He pointed to a 2003 interview in the conservative daily Magyar Nemzet in which Orban discussed liberalism’s decay: "What we thought was the world order until now has turned out to be a transitional state. The true new world order is taking form now," Orban said.

According to Kovacs, in Tusnadfurdo, Orban was "clearly talking about factors relating to the economy and state organization," not about fundamental human rights. Kovacs also stressed that the context of the speech was unique: an annual lecture series where "for the past 25 years Mr. Orban and many other prominent Hungarian politicians have been giving lectures to a summer-school audience that included at times stunningly new perspectives on politics and policymaking, especially regarding the ‘Hungarian interest.’" Orban himself, in a weekly radio address on Aug. 15, discussed the benefits of his regime. "We say openly that we want to build a democracy — not a liberal democracy, not one that is built solely on individual interests, but one which considers the public good as the most important thing," he said.

Bozoki, by contrast, calls Orban’s speech "incredibly dangerous," as it "taps into Hungarian society’s discontent with liberalism’s failure to bring the economic benefits that it promised."

Many of Orban’s former colleagues say that his moves have unraveled the democratic principles and safeguards that they worked early on to create. "This is an especially vivid example of the dangers of unlimited power," says Peter Molnar, a founding Fidesz member who left the party in 1993. "At the time, all parties shared a strong sense of the necessity of self-restraint of power," Molnar says. "But this [Orban’s behavior] shows how careful we have to be about the sustainability of the institutional structures that limit concentration of power."

Orban has no plans of stepping aside anytime soon. Indeed, he seems keen on the same thing he always has: amassing more and more power.

This year, he announced plans to move into a palace in Budapest’s Castle District: the former residence of kings during the Austro-Hungarian Empire and of Hungary’s nationalist interwar strongman, Miklos Horthy. To many, this is a sign of how Orban views himself — and how he views the control he has managed to assert over his country.

This article does not reflect the views of Central European University.  

Correction, Aug. 21, 2014: A tweet originally quoted in this article was incorrectly attributed to European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker. However, he does not maintain the Twitter account from which the quote came, so the quote was deleted. (Return to reading.)