Dispatch

The view from the ground.

The Secrets to Viktor Orban’s Success

Hungary’s prime minister will likely win a fourth consecutive election with an original political formula.

By , a Berlin-based journalist.
Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban gives a speech marking Hungary's Revolution and Independence Day on March 15, 2022 in front of the parliament building of Budapest.
Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban gives a speech marking Hungary's Revolution and Independence Day on March 15, 2022 in front of the parliament building of Budapest.
Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban gives a speech marking Hungary's Revolution and Independence Day on March 15, 2022 in front of the parliament building of Budapest. ATTILA KISBENEDEK/AFP via Getty Images

BUDAPEST, Hungary—Prime Minister Viktor Orban has ruled post-communist Hungary for around half of its 32 years, winning four elections as frontman of his national populist party Fidesz. On April 3, the 58-year-old could well triumph again, though in a much closer race than his previous victories, which have earned Fidesz supermajorities in parliament since 2010.

Nevertheless, Fidesz is ahead in the polls. That’s despite knock-down, drag-out brawls between Orban’s government and the European Union, which opinion polls show a majority of Hungarians revere. It’s also despite ubiquitous corruption that infects and diminishes just about every sector of life—to the advantage of Fidesz cronies and wheeler-dealers but not the average Hungarian; and despite a muzzled media that dispenses Fidesz propaganda so outlandish and absurd—for example, justifying that arms not be sent to Ukraine because they may be sold to “terrorists” in France—that it offends the intelligence of educated people. And now there’s Orban’s long-standing and now mortifying friendship with Russian President Vladimir Putin, whose invasion of neighboring Ukraine has flooded Hungarian train stations with refugees, many of them of ethnic Hungarian origin. On top of all that, Hungary has the second-highest per-capita COVID-19 death toll in Europe.

And yet, about half of Hungarians will vote for Fidesz again, very possibly cementing Orban’s position as Central Europe’s preeminent politician rather than opting for the six-party coalition of the United Opposition, which includes socialists, liberals, greens, and conservatives. There’s no doubt that Fidesz has benefited from using its political power to manipulate Hungary’s legal and media landscapes. But it would also be foolish to deny that Orban enjoys genuine democratic popularity. So what is it that Orban understands about his fellow Hungarians? How can he win again and again when in just about every other country in Central Europe the top leadership posts rotate like turnstiles?

BUDAPEST, Hungary—Prime Minister Viktor Orban has ruled post-communist Hungary for around half of its 32 years, winning four elections as frontman of his national populist party Fidesz. On April 3, the 58-year-old could well triumph again, though in a much closer race than his previous victories, which have earned Fidesz supermajorities in parliament since 2010.

Nevertheless, Fidesz is ahead in the polls. That’s despite knock-down, drag-out brawls between Orban’s government and the European Union, which opinion polls show a majority of Hungarians revere. It’s also despite ubiquitous corruption that infects and diminishes just about every sector of life—to the advantage of Fidesz cronies and wheeler-dealers but not the average Hungarian; and despite a muzzled media that dispenses Fidesz propaganda so outlandish and absurd—for example, justifying that arms not be sent to Ukraine because they may be sold to “terrorists” in France—that it offends the intelligence of educated people. And now there’s Orban’s long-standing and now mortifying friendship with Russian President Vladimir Putin, whose invasion of neighboring Ukraine has flooded Hungarian train stations with refugees, many of them of ethnic Hungarian origin. On top of all that, Hungary has the second-highest per-capita COVID-19 death toll in Europe.

And yet, about half of Hungarians will vote for Fidesz again, very possibly cementing Orban’s position as Central Europe’s preeminent politician rather than opting for the six-party coalition of the United Opposition, which includes socialists, liberals, greens, and conservatives. There’s no doubt that Fidesz has benefited from using its political power to manipulate Hungary’s legal and media landscapes. But it would also be foolish to deny that Orban enjoys genuine democratic popularity. So what is it that Orban understands about his fellow Hungarians? How can he win again and again when in just about every other country in Central Europe the top leadership posts rotate like turnstiles?

For one, Fidesz has a unique hold on those Hungarians who hold a pronounced nationalistic worldview, carefully striking a balance between revisionism and realpolitik. Even though you regularly see Greater Hungary bumper stickers on car windows—with the red-white-and-green colors of the Hungarian flag covering slices of Slovakia, Serbia, Romania, Ukraine, and Austria—most of these sentimental types no longer actually believe in the realization of a Greater Hungary beyond its present borders.

“It’s unthinkable that Orban try to take southern Slovakia or western Romania with military force, like Putin is doing in Ukraine,” said Lacy Kornitzer, a Berlin-based Hungarian author and filmmaker. “But his nostalgic, revanchist tone plays on a mythological past greatness, which evokes a promise of happiness just by dint of being Hungarian. We are the most beautiful country with the most beautiful stretch of the Danube; we have the most beautiful language and the greatest hero and martyr narratives in history. This keeps alive a dream of one day recovering Hungary’s ‘historical borders’ without ever acting upon it.”

Although nationalist politicians have pushed these buttons since 1990, Orban’s legacy enables him to use them with particular effect – so much so that there is no independent far-right party even trying to challenge Fidesz for these voters. It was Orban, after all, who pushed through dual citizenship for the roughly 2.4 million people of Hungarian ethnicity who live abroad in 2010, which won him the hearts of Hungarian nationalists and hundreds of thousands of new votes. Since then, he has increased financial support to those communities tenfold, ensuring Fidesz over 90 percent of the diaspora vote.

Orban’s nationalist ideology goes hand in hand with a paternalist agenda that professes to look out for the particular interests of Hungarians—in contrast to the liberals, greens, Christian democrats, and socialists, who, according to Orban, ultimately answer to Germany, the EU, international financial institutions, and global businesses. “Orban has managed to convince a lot of people that Fidesz and only Fidesz protects the Hungarian people from many different forms of interference in their best interests and Hungary’s national sovereignty,” said Andras Biro-Nagy, director of Policy Solutions, a Budapest-based think tank. “Whether it’s high energy prices, immigration, LGBT issues, or even now a war on its borders, a lot of Fidesz voters feel that in Orban, they are in safe hands that will do what it takes to shield them from external evils in a turbulent world.”

The war in Ukraine, which has suddenly become issue No. 1 in the campaign, is a case in point. After a decade of cozying up to Putin—not least, for his help building another nuclear reactor in Hungary—Orban suddenly found himself in an awkward bind when Putin invaded Ukraine. Many thought it would surely spell the Hungarian leader’s demise. But Orban found a way to use it to his advantage.

“Hungarians are risk-averse, short-term thinkers,” said Daniel Fazekas, a social media researcher in Hungary. “The war scares them, and they don’t want any part of it.” Thus Orban’s answer was a policy of “strategic calm,” what he calls a “peace policy” that casts Hungary cautiously against Russia, on the side of NATO and the EU, yet at arm’s length from them. Hungary opposes sending arms to Ukraine, embargoing energy, and imposing a no-fly zone. Orban reminds his fellow Hungarians that 65 percent of Hungary’s oil and 85 percent of its gas supplies come from Russia—and opinion polls show that 60 percent of Hungarians feel Orban’s strategy is the best way to keep them safe.

The Czech Republic’s defense minister mocked Orban’s fence-sitting in a recent tweet, saying she is “very sorry that cheap Russian oil is more important to Hungarian politicians than Ukrainian blood.”

Another arrow in Orban’s quiver is a brand of arch social conservatism that fetches support mostly in the countryside, now the heartland of Fidesz’s constituency. In contrast to the relatively enlightened Christian democracy that evolved in Italy and Germany during the Cold War decades, Hungarian conservatism is defiantly old-school: extoling of the conjugal family, anti-LGBT, and uncritical of the blemishes on Hungary’s historical record, including its antisemitism. Hungary isn’t Germany or the Netherlands, Orban proclaims—and it doesn’t want to be.

To make sure that Christians and conservatives turn out in adequate numbers, Fidesz added a referendum to the Election Day ballot. Hungarian citizens will be asked whether they support a ban on the publication of LGBT-related content that “influences the development of underage children.” The outcome of the referendum won’t change anything, since last year Hungarian lawmakers passed a law making it illegal to portray homosexuality and sex reassignment in school education material and television programs targeted at people under the age of 18. While the government argues the law primarily targets pedophilia, human rights experts protest that the conflation of the LGBT community and pedophiles perpetuates harmful stereotypes.

But the referendum hammers home the point to Orban’s conservative constituency that Hungary will not bend to the EU’s will on cultural issues supposedly central to the country’s identity. European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen called the law “a shame,” and LGBT groups denounced it as the most restrictive in Europe.

“Hungarians simply don’t think the EU understands enough the Hungarian context to tell them what to do on these kind of issues,” said Ferenc Miszlivetz, the director of the Institute of Advanced Studies Koszeg. “After having gone down so many wrong roads that the EU or the IMF or the World Bank has told them they must go, they see in Orban someone who stands up for doing it their way. He’s from the countryside himself and speaks their language, not that of Brussels or Berlin.” Orban successfully distinguished himself from the United Opposition’s leader, Peter Marki-Zay, when he said, “We think differently about the future of nations and nation-states; we think differently about globalization; and now we think differently about the family.”

Of course, Orban’s arguments for a fourth consecutive term receive an enormous lift from the heavy hand of the state. “Fidesz’s control of so many of the institutions and dominance in the official media are key to its popularity,” Biro-Nagy said. Not only has Fidesz gerrymandered the country’s electoral map, but government-controlled media also regurgitate the party line and bash the opposition at every chance. Recently, the public television channel that broadcast Orban’s March 15 National Day address nine times in one day gave opposition candidate Marki-Zay just five minutes of airtime (the legal minimum). Fidesz’s spending on just social media advertisements is three times that of the opposition parties.

“It did not even take Fidesz a week to come up with a new campaign that portrays Orban as a peacekeeper and an assurance for safety,” Zoltan Lakner, editor in chief of the Jelen news outlet, told the Guardian, about Fidesz’s quick switch on Russia-Ukraine. “Orban has more resources and a much bigger platform to reach voters.”

“In the cities, lots of people get their news from the internet, but not in the countryside. There it’s TV, radio, and print media, which are mostly in government hands,” Biro-Nagy said.

Four more years of Orban? Half of Hungarians seem to feel this suits them just fine. The other half will have to determine whether they can ever come up with a political narrative as convincing as the one that still packs enough punch to put Fidesz over the top—with a little help.

Paul Hockenos is a Berlin-based journalist. His recent book is Berlin Calling: A Story of Anarchy, Music, the Wall and the Birth of the New Berlin (The New Press).

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