Hungary Is Too Small for Viktor Orban
He’s outmaneuvered all of his political rivals at home. Now the populist prime minister is setting out to put his stamp on the EU.
Today Fidesz faces no real challenge, except for the far-right Jobbik, which polls as Hungary’s second-largest party. Since 2010, Orban has bowed to popular pressure only twice: in Oct. 2014, after a proposed internet tax drew thousands to the streets of Budapest, and this April, when closing all the shops on Sunday proved too unpopular.
Under Orban’s leadership, Fidesz has continued to cement its control over Hungarian society. He passed a new constitution that centralized power. He overhauled the justice system, forcing dozens of judges into early retirement and limiting the ability of the Constitutional Court to act as a check on his legislation. He named confidants to key positions, such as the central bank. He created a partisan regulatory council to monitor private media outlets and fine them for “biased” coverage. All of these steps have ensured that Orban would be able to complete the transition from a post-communist era — which, in his interpretation, Hungary had not yet accomplished.
Ultimately, European leaders grew worried about Orban’s dismantling of Hungary’s democratic checks and balances. The EU launched several procedures to examine whether the new legislation breached its rules — and to send a signal of disapproval — but this has yielded few concrete results.
One of Orban’s greatest political assets is his appealing personality. “He’s like a rock star,” said Peter Kreko, director of the Budapest-based Political Capital Institute. In person, Orban is casual and friendly, and comes across as accessible. And his take-no-prisoners style, free of any political correctness, is alluring. “He makes people laugh. He’s also a freedom fighter, a quintessential Hungarian mythical figure, who is not afraid to take on big powers, for instance, banks or the EU. Orban’s politics is the politics of battle,” Kreko adds.
That’s why it’s imperative for him to always have a real or mythical enemy, whether it be the Communists, the IMF, the EU elite, or George Soros, the Hungarian-American businessman he accuses of funding his opponents. More recently, Orban has turned his sights on refugees. The Oct. 2 referendum is partly meant to hide shortcomings in Hungary’s education and health care systems, as well as Fidesz’s corruption scandals.
Orban’s populist intuition has enabled him to set the political agenda far beyond Hungary. Despite being one of the EU’s newer and poorer members, his country has punched above its weight. Orban has managed to shape the EU’s policy on migration, calling for better external border protection and fiercely criticizing Angela Merkel’s welcoming policy towards asylum seekers. Last year, he erected fences on Hungary’s borders to keep the migrants out, for which he was sharply criticized — only to be imitated by several other countries.
“Orban’s word in Europe already outweighs the size of Hungary, a small country,” Deutsch says. Disturbingly, he adds that he thinks the most influential part of Orban’s career is still ahead of him.
That could be. The illiberal tendencies Orban represents are gaining ground around the world. By endorsing Trump over Hillary Clinton, he signals to the world that the rise of cynical, populist nationalism is no longer the exception, but the rule. It’s not hard to find other examples. Nearby Poland is in the grip of the similarly populist and right-wing Law and Justice Party, which has shown no qualms about manipulating democratic institutions to strengthen its grip on government. Turkey’s President Recep Tayyip Erdogan is also cementing his hold on power in the name of defending democracy. And back home, some Hungarians have started to wonder whether Fidesz can be removed from power by democratic means. It will be a sad irony if the man who played such a key role in the birth of Hungarian democracy will prove to be its gravedigger.
In the top image, Viktor Orban inspects a border fence on the border of Bulgaria and Turkey.
Photo credit: NIKOLAY DOYCHINOV/AFP/Getty Images