The Regression of Viktor Orban

How did Hungary’s prime minister go from liberal reformer to right-wing demagogue?

James Traub
By , a columnist at Foreign Policy and nonresident fellow at New York University’s Center on International Cooperation.

BUDAPEST, Hungary — Viktor Orban, the prime minister of Hungary, is one of Europe's great protean figures. Today, he is arguably the most important right-wing leader on the continent -- but that is only the latest in a series of ideological identities.

BUDAPEST, Hungary — Viktor Orban, the prime minister of Hungary, is one of Europe’s great protean figures. Today, he is arguably the most important right-wing leader on the continent — but that is only the latest in a series of ideological identities.

Orban made his name in Hungary when, as a young lawyer and activist, he spoke at an immense rally in 1989 celebrating the reburial of Imre Nagy, the hero of the country’s 1956 failed uprising against the Soviets who was later executed for treason. Orban thrilled Hungarians by demanding that the Soviet Union withdraw from his country. Several months later, in one of the first signs of the exhaustion of the empire, the Soviets did just that. Hungary had one of the smoothest and least painful transitions to democracy in Eastern Europe. If the country had a single iconic moment of liberation, it was Orban who delivered it.

Yet today Orban rarely mentions Nagy or the other heroes of Hungarian democracy in his public addresses. He seems far more comfortable with Vladimir Putin, the legatee of the Soviet era. In the 2014 speech in which he, in effect, defined Orbanism, the mercurial prime minister made the peculiar claim that “the Western financial crisis” of 2008 had marked a pivot point in world affairs just as 1989 had. But in this case, power had passed from the liberal democracies that had won the Cold War to states that were not liberal nor, in some cases, democracies. “Today,” Orban asserted, “the stars of international analyses are Singapore, China, India, Turkey, Russia.” Orban now treats liberalism as the god that failed.

What is one to make of this astonishing evolution? I asked many people in Budapest but never heard an entirely persuasive answer. Andras Kovacs, a Soviet-era dissident who once taught at Eotvos Lorand University in Budapest, gave clandestine classes to Orban and other activists in the late 1980s. The young Orban struck him as a secular liberal firebrand. “He’s not religious at all,” Kovacs says, though today Orban constantly invokes Hungary’s “Christian” culture. Kovacs thinks of Orban as a masterful political entrepreneur: “He’s a politician who likes conflict. He doesn’t like to react to situations; he likes to create situations.” The 2014 speech, which wove a series of obscure and largely misunderstood anecdotes about the West into a grand narrative about the failure of liberalism, was just such an act of political and ideological creativity.

Orban, still young at 52, is an upstart in Hungary’s political culture. He once explained in an interview for an oral history project that he grew up in a small town that had neither peasant nor working-class roots — that was, in effect, a nothing place. “If I had to classify myself,” he said, “I come from this unculturedness.” His father was “a very violent man” who routinely beat him, and Orban made a life for himself by rising up through the Hungarian Young Communist League, which at the time would have been one of the few routes to social advancement for a young man from the sticks.

He found politics fascinating but said that he would be happiest as a professor of political science. This may account for the pedantic touches in Orban’s otherwise populist oratory, in which he sometimes introduces his listeners to “a trending topic in thinking” or “the most provocative and exciting question surfacing in the Western world” (which is, in case you’re wondering, the “race” to invent a more effective state). Anna-Maria Biro, head of the Budapest-based Tom Lantos Institute, which seeks to spread human rights, describes Orban as “a mix of an academic who wants to have an understanding and an authoritarian politician who wants to rule based on what he understands.” Nevertheless, Biro says, “I don’t view him as an enemy.”

Orban has the self-absorption, the didacticism, and the visceral hostility to elites that make up the fascist personality, but he is no fascist. For all his bombast, he is too much a professional politician, too rational and sane, to be a Hungarian Milosevic, much less an Il Duce. (One Budapest intellectual jokingly described him as “Mussolini without the fascism.”) He is, for instance, calculating enough to have hired Arthur Finkelstein, the political consultant who helped make “liberal” a dirty word in the Reagan era. One way of looking at Orban is thus as a sort of barometer for Hungary’s shifting political climate.

Orban helped found Fidesz in 1988 as a youth-oriented liberal anti-communist party, but it was not immediately a winner. It was less successful, for instance, in early elections than the Alliance of Free Democrats, another liberal party that leaned toward classic European-style social democracy and which formed a governing alliance with Socialists in 1994. But under Orban’s guidance, Fidesz began to move to the right. It won the 1998 election as a conservative force emphasizing traditional values. It also alleged in the same election that leftist parties were sheltering unreconstructed communists. Nevertheless, during his first term as premier, Orban governed as a classic pro-Western figure.

In 2002, the Socialists returned to power, but they did not last long: In 2006, then-Prime Minister Ferenc Gyurcsany was overheard in secret tapes giving a profanity-laced speech to the party faithful, saying that the party had done “nothing … for four years” and had “lied throughout the last year-and-a-half.” What was left of the party’s reputation was then wrecked by the 2008 financial crisis, which hit Hungary very hard. Orban increasingly spoke to Hungarians’ frustration with the free market and “European” values. The Orban who was elected in 2010 and reelected in 2014 was a political and economic nationalist who promised to restore Hungarian values and state control over the economy.

These shifts, which sound purely opportunistic, actually have an internal logic in the world of the post-Soviet states. Because Hungary’s Socialist Party grew out of its old communist party, for some Hungarians, it represented the discredited politics of the left. But many others voted for them out of a yearning for stability. And the Socialists were, in fact, economic liberals: reformers who oversaw the privatization of Hungary’s state-run economy.

But the 2008 crisis, and the ensuing fallout, seemed to offer a decisive verdict on their policies. What’s more, privatization in Hungary, as in much of the post-communist world, involved disposing of state assets in opaque transactions to well-connected figures as well as multinationals. “Liberalism,” for Hungarians, thus became associated not only with the communist past but with its opposite — the “neoliberal” economic policies of the Anglo-Americans, as well as with the worst aspects of crony capitalism.

“Liberalism” in Hungary has a vast range of associations, all of which Orban has positioned himself against. This is true at the cultural level: “liberals,” “the left,” and “social democrats” are terms synonymous in Hungary with the elite. Orban speaks of his opposition as enemies of Hungary. In his 2014 speech, he sardonically thanked those who “turned against us and provided the chance for good to win.” After all, “if there is no bad, how could good get mastery over the bad?”

Today’s Fidesz looks less like Italy’s Fascists than like Argentina’s Peronists — a party dedicated to protecting traditional values while asserting state control over political life and the economy. Soon after taking power, Orban promulgated laws regulating the media and the practice of religion (see my earlier column) and partially renationalized segments of the economy privatized by his left-wing predecessors, including health care and the production and delivery of energy. Balazs Felsmann, an economist with the previous Socialist government, which he describes as “Blairite,” said, “Orban appeals to the old instinct from the communist days — a strong state is good.”

This is the strange paradox at the core of Orbanism — virulent anti-communism combined with a deep nostalgia for the stable order of the old regime. What threatens that order, above all, is liberalism in all its guises — as social progressivism, as European integration, and as free-market reform.

While in Budapest, I had a long and very strange conversation with Maria Schmidt, a right-wing intellectual whose work Orban often cites. (See my earlier column.) When I asked Schmidt to tell me what Orban meant by “liberal” in his 2014 speech, she said, “Liberal as a word to the Hungarian people is 100 percent negative.” The Socialists and liberals, she said, “took the part of Tony Blair and Bill Clinton; they sided with the global companies.” Schmidt is an anti-globalization conspiracy theorist. She believes that after the fall of communism, the EU and the United States tried to take over the Hungarian economy. I asked if she was referring to the multinationals that bought Hungarian firms. Schmidt looked at me incredulously. “You think the companies don’t have behind them the country? You think behind Monsanto is not the United States of America?”

At the same time, Schmidt is the kind of virulent anti-communist who I thought had disappeared with Ronald Reagan. She is the founder and director of the House of Terror, a museum dedicated to the horrors perpetrated by the Soviets against the Hungarian people. She has not forgiven the West for its acquiescence or liberals for their complicity. “We in Eastern Europe are not all stupid,” she said to me. “We know that the West was having a very nice life during that period while we were under communist rule, which was supported by left-wing intellectuals in every possible way.”

Schmidt is still shadowboxing with the ghost of communism. As I was leaving, she gave me three books: two records of symposia on Ronald Reagan and George H. W. Bush and a copy of her 2007 Battle of Wits, an account of the unmasking of a network of American and Hungarian spies for the Soviet Union. She lauds Sen. Joseph McCarthy’s crusade to unmask alleged communists, noting only that “the majority of left-wing intellectuals … considered his efforts an infringement on their freedom of opinion and an assault on their integrity.”

The fact that Orban apparently views Schmidt as an intellectual source is troubling in itself. He may not share her paranoia, but the combination of anti-communism and anti-liberalism Schmidt espouses has led Fidesz, and Orban, into some very strange places. Orban has become an admirer of Putin, who blazed the trail of populist appeals to tradition and conservative values in the post-Soviet world. Orban has vexed his EU partners by refusing to condemn Russian aggression in Ukraine. He has adopted Putin’s argument that foreign-supported NGOs constitute an intolerable fifth column. He may find Putin a more congenial figure than German Chancellor Angela Merkel or France’s François Hollande.

Orban is certainly wrong in thinking that the shock of 2008 demonstrated the resilience of illiberal states. Russia is now an economic shambles, while the United States has recovered relatively well. But Orban is surely right that the crisis has led many solid structures, including those of Europe itself, to totter. It has undermined people’s faith in existing regimes, whether of the left or right. It has opened up new ideological possibilities. Orban once hoped to be the tribune of the euphoric hopes of 1989. Instead, he has become a vessel for the anxiety and suspicion of 2008. Perhaps he has found the moment he was waiting for. Hungary will be the worse for it.

This is the final column in a five-part series on Hungary’s rightward shift. For parts one, two, and three and four, click here, here, here, and here.

Photo credit: THIERRY CHARLIER/AFP/Getty Images

James Traub is a columnist at Foreign Policy, nonresident fellow at New York University’s Center on International Cooperation, and author of the book What Was Liberalism? The Past, Present and Promise of A Noble Idea. Twitter: @jamestraub1

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