The End of Viktor Orban’s Peacock Dance

As the European Union takes long overdue measures to punish the Hungarian regime, the prime minister appears to be moving from rhetorical to real repression.

People attend a demonstration against Hungary's Prime Minister Viktor Orban on Sept. 16 in Budapest as the European Commission considered disciplinary action against Orban's policies. (Laszlo Balogh/Getty Images)
People attend a demonstration against Hungary's Prime Minister Viktor Orban on Sept. 16 in Budapest as the European Commission considered disciplinary action against Orban's policies. (Laszlo Balogh/Getty Images)

On Sept. 12, the European Parliament voted to launch sanctions against a member state for the first time; the decision to pursue punitive measures against Hungary was unprecedented. It was a first for Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban, too. Orban not only lost an important vote but also failed to accommodate his European partners, including his party grouping, the European People’s Party (EPP). In fact, he did not even try. Despite repeated calls, many private and some public, to show some readiness to compromise, Orban went full steam ahead and gave a blistering speech on the floor of the Strasbourg parliament, rejecting the “threats, the blackmail, the slander, and fraudulent accusations” and accusing the parliament of “denouncing” a country that “has contributed to the history of our great continent of Europe with its work and—when needed—with its blood.”

That Orban has decided to go into war mode indicates a break with his signature strategy, which he himself has called a “peacock dance”—an approach designed to appease his critics with cosmetic changes while continuing to transform Hungary into an illiberal state. Over the past eight years—during which the Hungarian prime minister has built a system of governance that no longer resembles a democracy but has kept an ersatz version of many democratic institutions—Orban and his Fidesz party have tended to take two steps ahead only to take a step back at the very the last minute and squeeze out a compromise with EU officials.

This was the case with restrictive media laws, the forced retirement of judges, and the deregistration of hundreds of small churches. The most offensive provisions were deleted from the media laws, including fines for “unbalanced” content, but the state media authority has continued to wield extensive powers over the press. Perhaps the most telling example of the Orban regime’s legal creativity was the treatment of judges who were forced into retirement. By the time the government amended the laws at the end of a lengthy battle with the EU, most judges had decided to opt for government compensation instead of returning, especially because many of their positions had already been filled.

Orban’s compromises on these issues calmed his critics in Brussels but failed to restore full democratic functioning to the institutions he had gutted. Moreover, it allowed Orban, rather than EU officials, to define the boundaries of what is regarded as acceptable in the EU. In the past, Orban had acquiesced under pressure because it was still important for him to be regarded as a member of the club. The fact that he consciously decided not to do so this time seems a bold and risky move on his part.

It’s possible that Orban believes that he will have time to self-correct once the Article 7 sanctions process is underway. His move could also mean that the prime minister has had enough of being ordered around and that his political instincts suggest that now is the time to jump ship and move forward at the helm of a new anti-migration, sovereigntist, nativist grouping. He and other Fidesz politicians have certainly been softly blackmailing the EPP in the past few months, playing with the idea of leaving the party and taking its right fringe with them.

While such a move could hurt all mainstream party groupings—according to some calculations, if all Euroskeptic, populist forces joined together, the radical vote could take up one-third of the parliament—it is unlikely to lead to complete dysfunction. Past experience, such as the case of a far-right grouping that counted the granddaughter of the Italian fascist leader Benito Mussolini among its members but fell victim to infighting and dissolved in less than a year in 2007, suggests that such a coalition of extremists rarely lasts and eventually descends into debates fueled by diametrically opposed national interests, taking a toll on the popularity of all parties involved.

Orban’s political strategy, not unlike U.S. President Donald Trump’s, relies on constant escalation and the search for new enemies—this has been true since he won his first supermajority in 2010 and is still true after his third, in 2018. For the past three years, his strategic and ideologically driven choice has been a crusade against migration, but thanks to his war on the Hungarian-born philanthropist George Soros he has also served up domestic enemies, including nongovernmental organizations and, more recently, academia.

Following his attacks on the Soros-funded Central European University (CEU), researchers at the Hungarian Academy of Sciences—some of whom had been present at the protests defending CEU and academic freedoms—were shocked to find out that they had become Orban’s latest targets. The government has moved to take control of the academy’s funding and started discussions on closing down research institutions, and a number of academics have ended up on lists drawn up by pro-government outlets for allegedly not producing enough research or for failing to work on topics deemed worthy of the public interest. Gender studies, a discipline particularly detested by the circle of intellectuals supporting the government, is set to be banned starting next year due to its removal from the list of accredited programs.

In his first two terms, Orban did not seem to take a personal interest in his enemies; his choices were the result of cold political calculation. His wars, while vicious and increasingly dirty, also stayed on a rhetorical level, never crossing into the outright political violence or harassment seen in Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s Turkey or Vladimir Putin’s Russia. Despite the constant comparisons, in Hungary critics have not been silenced, jailed, or beaten up; journalists get to write what they want even if the number of independent outlets dwindles by the day; and NGO workers, while operating in an increasingly hostile atmosphere, can continue doing their work.

But with constant escalation comes the constant need to deliver: It’s no longer enough to identify new enemies to fight, one has to show that actual steps have been taken to defeat them. The line between an ideological enemy and a personal one gradually blurs, allowing for the conflation of the two and risks turning the regime into one characterized by actual, rather than rhetorical, repression.

Hungary is not there yet, but, by all accounts, it’s moving in that direction. That is mainly because Orban has navigated himself into a situation where turning back no longer seems possible. He has been upping the ante for so long that a sudden climbdown could equal political suicide; after all, he can’t announce suddenly that Soros is no longer a threat to Hungary. It seems as if he has fallen victim to his own ideology and started to believe that his political enemies are his personal enemies. Such a turn would be tragic for Hungary—it would mean that he’s more interested in exacting political revenge than in keeping what remains of the facade of democracy.

Regime shifts, unless they involve violent upheavals or revolutionary shocks, are never clear-cut transitions but fitful movements in a direction, dotted with occasional blips—anomalies that only become clear with the benefit of hindsight. The first of these blips in Hungary was in 2016, when a group of burly security guards from a private company physically obstructed an opposition politician from submitting a referendum initiative on an unpopular government policy. Although the men were later linked to Fidesz, there was no genuine investigation of the case, and no one was charged with wrongdoing. The initiative was eventually allowed to go forward, only to be mooted by a government withdrawal of the policy. The incident, which raised the specter of political violence, came to be remembered as an anomaly.

Over the past two years, there were a number of additional events that could be characterized as such blips. They included the use of the State Audit Office in 2017 to threaten the most popular opposition party with potentially bankrupting fines right before elections and a puzzling sting operation in early 2018 aimed at discrediting NGOs that work on migration.

The two issues on which the EPP had requested a Fidesz climbdown were among these blips, which could explain why Orban is unwilling to budge on them. One of them concerns threats to the continued operation of CEU in Budapest, a matter that has brought widespread international condemnation and pressure on the government. Back in 2017, everyone thought that the government’s main intention was to find an issue that would animate its critics and divert attention away from corruption or the dire state of Hungary’s health care system. Yet, more than a year later, the university remains in legal limbo while Orban constantly has to justify himself in a fight that has brought him little political capital domestically.

Similarly, recently adopted NGO laws—the other concern of the EPP—have brought little domestic benefit but have seemed to demonstrate that the government’s repression is moving from the rhetorical to the substantive level. According to the Stop Soros law focusing on migration and adopted this summer, anyone conducting border monitoring, distributing information materials, or “operating a network” could be punished with up to one year in prison. Additionally, activities that “support” migration will be subject to a 25 percent tax, including media campaigns, educational activities, and “positive propaganda”—making the publication of an article about migration potentially subject to taxation.

Certainly, the aim here is not to go after each and every person but to create an atmosphere in which critics will be reluctant to speak out and NGOs working with asylum-seekers will decide not to take on new clients, fearing that a bad court decision could land them in jail. But surely the government needn’t have resorted to such strict punishments if it intended to keep things on a rhetorical level.

If CEU or NGOs are only useful as disposable enemies, Orban could have made small concessions to the EPP and amended the laws while keeping the pressure up. He could have also abandoned those issues, deciding instead to focus only on migration or to search for new enemies. Yet the fact that he has been reluctant to abandon them could presage a new phase in Hungary’s post-democratic development: a move toward a more autocratic setup in which the personal drives the political.

Of course, it might turn out that the peacock took two very large steps forward this time around and that Orban will now retreat, returning to his past pragmatism. It is perfectly possible that he will announce tomorrow that CEU is staying and that he has given in to the EPP on the NGO laws. But with laws setting out jail terms, the stakes are now higher than ever and it is becoming increasingly difficult for him to steer the ship back and keep up appearances.

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