Viktor Orban Is Just Getting Started

Hungary’s leader used fearmongering propaganda to win. As he entrenches his power, the country’s democratic backsliding will get even worse.

Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban in Berlin, Germany, on May 8, 2014.
Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban in Berlin, Germany, on May 8, 2014.

“Thinking can never quite catch up with reality; reality is always richer than our comprehension,” reads a quote by the philanthropist and financier George Soros posted next to the entrance of Budapest’s Central European University. “But we must remember the unintended consequences — the outcome always differs from expectations.”

This has been doubly true in Hungary in the past few weeks. Prime Minister Viktor Orban and his Fidesz party — having received a two-thirds majority in two successive elections — seemed on track for a third a few months before the elections. The opposition was weak and divided, and talk about Fidesz “agents” in their ranks further demoralized already disillusioned opposition voters.

Then, in February, the mayoral elections in the provincial town of Hodmezovasarhely shocked the country. An opposition victory in what had been a traditional Fidesz stronghold came out of the blue, after unofficial polls had predicted a stable majority for the governing party. Across the country, several websites sprung up, offering to educate Hungarians about tactical voting and to pinpoint the opposition candidate with the best chance of defeating Fidesz in their constituencies. A steady stream of corruption scandals involving government officials further raised expectations that Fidesz, if not beatable, was at least not invincible. On election day, Budapest was buzzing with hope amid reports of a record-high turnout and long lines of young people waiting outside the polling booths, sipping their beers.

Then the results came in at 11 p.m. on April 8, and they were as unexpected as the February by-election. The governing coalition of Fidesz and the Christian Democratic People’s Party won a supermajority again, securing almost 49 percent of the vote and 134 seats out of 199. The record-high turnout also meant more Fidesz voters in small towns across the country. Orban’s party managed to expand its voter base to more than 2.5 million people from 2.26 million in 2014 — although disturbing allegations of irregularities in a number of districts in the past few days cast a shadow over this growth. The opposition scored victories in only a handful places, mostly Budapest districts, and was decimated nationwide. The second-place finisher, the historically far-right Jobbik — which has recently made an effort to rebrand itself as a centrist party — received 25 seats and managed to win in only one district; the left-leaning opposition parties together will have just 38 seats in the new parliament.

There are several explanations for Fidesz’s overwhelming victory, and they are not mutually exclusive. The party has been in power for eight years, which has given it the time to centralize power, monopolize the country’s media, and build up a patronage network of highly dependent and therefore very loyal local intermediaries. Fidesz has also created a new bourgeoisie that is characterized by pliability and a predilection for political favors instead of marketable skills. Hungary’s civil service, state-owned and state-controlled institutions, and the burgeoning circle of companies winning public procurement contracts are stacked with these people. The entrenchment of local hierarchies and politically dependent elites — as well as the reinforcement of the idea that one’s fate ultimately depends on politics and connections, not personal achievements — will fundamentally influence Hungary’s social structure for years to come.

Fidesz is also benefiting from a growing economy. Foreign investment is increasing, and salaries have been rising as Hungary recovers from the global economic crisis. This growth is neither domestically driven nor is it likely to be sustainable. Nevertheless, it is a reality at the moment. Walking around Budapest or municipal capitals, one can feel that the economy is booming by looking at the hipper-than-Brooklyn bar scene, the packed restaurants, the newly built apartment complexes that pop up on every corner, or the sheer number of tourists descending on Hungary.

But the most important factor explaining Orban’s success has been the brutally effective propaganda campaign he has waged against all enemies, foreign and domestic, in the past two years. With the help of seemingly unlimited public funds, pro-government media, and a sea of billboards showing Soros and dark-skinned individuals preparing to “flood” Hungary, Orban has shaped a parallel reality. This campaign has successfully combined anti-Muslim, anti-Semitic, and anti-immigrant propaganda to scare Hungarian voters. By blaming Soros and Brussels, Orban has not only played on Hungarians’ historical resentment of foreign domination but has also taken advantage of people’s deepest fears. And he has offered them a cure: stability, security, and homogeneity.

The main question right now, however, is not what happened in the election but what will happen next. The coming years will show how much democratic backsliding is possible in a country that is a member of the European Union. Fidesz has successfully dismantled all checks on its power over the past eight years but has yet to build out anything resembling a dictatorship.

Yet Orban’s past steps and rhetoric put him in a bind and have placed the ruling party on a course of inevitable escalation. The internal logic of this system — in which political calculations trump moral considerations — provides no opportunity for self-correction.

Fearmongering succeeded at the polls, which will only strengthen Fidesz’s resolve to continue on its current course. After the elections, ruling-party politicians announced that they would pass the so-called Stop Soros bill, which in its current form could lead to the banning of practically any nongovernmental organization. If the past is any indication, Fidesz will water down such laws to make them look as if they conform to EU rules but keep their essence, shrinking Hungary’s democratic space and transforming a hitherto mostly rhetorical campaign into an actual crackdown.

Orban may well go down in the history books as a spectacularly successful politician. But his political success will cost Hungary dearly.

Zselyke Csaky is the research director for Europe and Eurasia at Freedom House. Twitter: @zecsaky