In the first parliamentary election in a European country since Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, Hungarian voters on Sunday will choose between liberal and illiberal democracy, between Peter Marki-Zay, the opposition-coalition-supported mayor of a provincial town, and Viktor Orbán, the country’s unapologetically authoritarian leader since 2010.
The career of Hungary’s prime minister Viktor Orbán spans the entire period of Hungary’s post-communist political history. He has served four terms in office—the last three have been consecutive—and during his tenure, his authoritarian actions have been seen as a model for a number of politicians throughout the region. It began in 1989, when he was twenty-six years old and one of the leaders of an audacious liberal party of young people known as Fidesz—which in its current incarnation is none of the above. He first gained public attention during a symbolic reburial of the leaders of the 1956 Hungarian revolution, which had been brutally crushed by the Soviets. In front of more than 200,000 people in Hero’s Square in Budapest, he delivered an impassioned speech in which he demanded a new democratic government that would eradicate the legacy of communism and push the Soviets out of the country. As András Bozóki, professor at the Department of Political Science at the Central European University explained, “He was an anti-communist liberal Democrat at the time, and anti-Russian also.”
Aside from the anti-communism, none of those other qualities would endure. First elected prime minister in 1998, he was subsequently defeated twice but became victorious in 2010. During his recent four terms in office, Orbán has championed the concept of “illiberal democracy”—a term first coined as something negative by Fareed Zakaria in a 1997 Foreign Affairs article—which he believed would bring a long-overdue end to multiculturalism. “Christian democracy is not liberal,” Orbán told ethnic Hungarians in Romania in 2018. “It is illiberal, if you like.”
Orbán changed the Constitution, packed the courts, stifled the media, brutally prevented Syrian refugees from passing through the country, suffocated academic freedom, and became cozy with Vladimir Putin and former President Donald Trump. After Russia invaded Ukraine, Orbán was vaguely critical of his former ally but has since stepped back, declaring the importance of Hungarian neutrality—even as it shares a border with its besieged neighbor—and politicizing the catastrophe by falsely accusing the opposition of wanting to drag Hungary into a war that no one really wants.
During Orbán’s tenure, American conservatives have celebrated his assertive leadership and his aggressive anti-immigration policies. At a White House meeting in 2019, Trump said, “Viktor Orbán has done a tremendous job in so many different ways, highly respected, respected all over Europe, probably like me, a little bit controversial—but that’s ok. You’ve done a good job and you’ve kept your country safe.” Last August, Fox News host Tucker Carlson visited Hungary and broadcast his show from there, celebrating Orbán’s defense of “democracy against the unaccountable billionaires”—a not-so-subtle reference to Hungarian-born philanthropist George Soros who has been the focus of undisguised anti-Semitic attacks by Orbán. Meanwhile, the EU has belatedly despaired over its Hungarian member for its flouting of European values.
Many of Orbán’s supporters live in Hungary’s provinces, while his opponents tend to be educated urban dwellers. Those divisions have grown toxic. A friend in Budapest wrote:
“Fidesz is the church, and the savior is the prime minister. The Catholic church I have been attending since my childhood has been pushing the Fidesz agenda to the point that I cannot bear attending a mass. The Russian propaganda is incredibly powerful. When my other colleague, great friend, and a liberal through and through, starts blaming the US for the war in Ukraine after a day spent scrolling on Facebook, that’s when I realize just how powerful it really is.”
In order to learn more about Orbán’s tenure and the stakes of this election, I spoke with Bozóki on Zoom from his home in Budapest.
After Communism collapsed, and Hungary was an independent country, how did it do?
Between the early 1990s and the 2000s, Hungary was considered to be a liberal democracy, even a consolidated democracy, by leading political scientists in the world, the democracy and human rights group Freedom House, and other democracy measuring institutes. They claimed that Hungary was doing well. The country actually had made a successful transition from communism to democracy. Everything was just fine, and the country joined the European Union. It looked as if Hungary was going to be just another normal, boring European country. And that was that.
But Orbán certainly changed that narrative. Could you run us through a very condensed version of his political genesis?
Orbán was thirty-five years old when he first came to power as prime minister in 1998. He stayed for four years but lost against the socialists and liberals in 2002. Between 2002 and 2010, there were eight years of socialist liberal parties in power and Orbán was continuously in the opposition, though he unsuccessfully tried to regain power in 2006. I think these two losses were formative for him, and he decided to seek revenge. He translated his defeats into the conviction that he was too soft and much too democratic. And he believed that if he came back to power, he would not let the opposition beat him again. He started to believe that democracy should be built on a nation-state model with a strong leader. And that the policies should reflect the will of the majority only. He also believed there should be a national culture that represents a homogeneous entity, not including cosmopolitans, laborers, those who are progressives, feminists, or LGBTQ people, or just those who promote cultural diversity.
Between 2002 and 2010, there were three different Prime Ministers from the liberal or left-liberal camps. They each were replaced by the other due to some political or economic crisis, but the effect was that people had the feeling of being in crisis. They were inclined to want a strong man rule by someone who can govern, who promises unity, and who will not divide, but unite the country. At that time, Orbán was already a populist. He started his career as a liberal, but then moved to being a right-wing liberal, then conservative, then nationalist, and then an ethno-populist. Then there was this exceptional historical moment when he was able to win the elections by an absolute majority in 2010. This could be translated to a two-thirds majority of seats in the Parliament, due to the disproportional electoral system. That gave him the opportunity to change the constitution, because according to Hungarian law, once a party in power has a two-thirds majority in the House, it can change the constitution.
It’s worth noting that in the 1990s, the socialists and the liberals had a two-thirds majority, but they did not want to use this exceptional power to destroy democracy. Immediately after the election, Orbán started to claim that his was an exceptional mandate. He wanted to translate his concept of democracy to majoritarianism, which means that democracy is the property of the majority, but not the property of everybody. Democracy was for the winners, and not for the losers.
As you noted, one of his first actions was to change the Hungarian constitution. What did that mean in practical terms?
No one from the opposition voted for the new constitution, but it didn’t matter. It was voted by Fidesz MPs in April 2011 and was implemented on January 1, 2012. The government immediately started dismantling the system of checks and balances. They stuffed the Constitutional Court with their own loyalists; it was once ten people, and they raised the membership to 15 people. They put former Fidesz members on the court, and then diminished its powers. They created a new media law and narrowed the freedom of the press. Favoritism was introduced in every aspect of public life: in the economy, in the field of culture, in the state administration, until independent agencies were threatened.
Could you talk a bit about the media and how the free press has virtually disappeared?
Independent investors and Hungarian businessmen tried to channel their money into the pro-government media, buying up some internet portals, and newspapers. And finally, after 2014, they nationalized these right-wing newspapers and portals. Public television became state television. Rational discourse in the media has been replaced by propaganda. It was very important for Orbán to create a new reality. There are several lessons from this: Occupying the state administration, the independent administrative bodies, starting a war against civil society, organizations, NGOs, occupying the media, threatening the capitalists, so that they should support the Prime Minister. Nonetheless, it was still some sort of democracy until 2014. But without the rule of law, it was already a low-quality, diminished democracy. Already an illiberal democracy much before Orbán described his own system proudly as an illiberal democracy.
What does “illiberal democracy” mean?
A sort of rude, half-democratic, anti-liberal system in the grey zone. It’s a good question as to why Orbán would refer to an illiberal democracy when it has been used in the West since Fareed Zakaria coined it as a negative concept. Orbán presented this in a proud way. He asserted that we are economically anti-neoliberal, and politically, we are anti-gender, anti-cosmopolitan, anti-European, anti-diversity, and anti-rule of law. That was the meaning of illiberal democracy. The Western press and political analysts and scholars were very slow in reacting to this. According to the Freedom House, Hungary in 2016 was still sort of a democracy, even if it was bit unconsolidated. But in my view they were wrong because “illiberal democracy” is a type of hybrid regime.
Didn’t the European Union start finding him less appealing?
It is difficult to expect a forceful reaction because the European Union was made for liberal democracies. There was a threshold or some criteria that had to be fulfilled to join the European Union. If somebody met those criteria, then that country qualified as a liberal democracy, and once you are in the club, nobody expected that the country could backslide from a liberal democracy to a hybrid regime. The European Union simply was unprepared for such a reverse transition, not just the consolidating democracy, but also democratic regression or even becoming an autocracy. In Brussels, the Fidesz delegates were voting together with the European People’s Party. And the European People’s Party was happy with it because Fidesz had a large delegation, and together they composed the largest faction in the European Parliament. So they were not ready to stand up against Fidesz until 2019—when it was too late. It is also part of the corruption within the European Union, or European party politics, that they were not sticking to their principles any longer, but they were more pragmatic.
How did his actions play domestically, for Hungarians?
Orbán was clever in terms of domestic politics. He introduced the flat tax, which was favorable for the rich and the upper-middle class, who prospered. On the other hand, with the introduction of utility cuts, the state guaranteed that the gas prices were not going up. He introduced a public work program for unemployed people, so those who formerly received some unemployment benefit—a very low amount of money—were offered somewhat higher compensation. It wasn’t enough to survive, but still, many people were grateful for this basic income. Orbán customized his policies to different segments of society, between these two extremes, and throughout emphasized a nationalistic agenda. By doing these things, not only the elimination of liberal democracy, but these material benefits, helped him win the next elections.
Let’s come up to the present with the elections that are approaching. How has Fidesz manipulated who will be able to vote?
The modified electoral law was made even more disproportional. Round-up elections were replaced by one-round elections to make the formation of an opposition movement more difficult. It went on hand in hand with massive gerrymandering. First citizenship was given to ethnic Hungarians living outside Hungary in the neighboring countries. These grateful ethnic Hungarians, who are typically conservative, could vote easily by mail. But those Hungarians who left Hungary to work in Western Europe, mostly younger, more educated, more urban elements have to go to certain voting stations. For instance, more than 150,000 Hungarians live in the United Kingdom, but they can only vote in London, Manchester, and Edinburgh, only three places.
The Orbán government made it extremely difficult for West European Hungarians who are supposed to have an apartment in Hungary, to vote from abroad. They either had to queue up at the consulate or the embassy, or they had to fly back to Hungary to vote. It is really unfair. This began in 2014 when the election was nominally free, but deeply unfair. Since that time the notion of “free but unfair” lost its meaning and has been replaced by the concept of structural manipulation. The whole regime is based on cheating so the election is not an exceptional moment in that.
A Hungarian sociologist, Bálint Magyar, described the regime as a “mafia state” because it’s not representing public interests, but the interests of power, the friends and associates of Orbán, the political and economic entrepreneurs. This is not a classic breakdown of democracy, like revolution or a coup d’état. In this case, a democratically elected leader is hollowing out democracy from the inside through an incremental process, so it’s difficult to identify the definitive step. He got the political power in the first election. In the second term, he got the economic power, and he centralized his power by the end of the second term. And by that time, the European Union noticed the wrong direction, and also what was happening in the Polish election, and the Orbán phenomenon became a European phenomenon, not just an isolated Hungarian case. His dishonest, opportunistic political approach infected Slovenia, Serbia, Bulgaria, Macedonia, Poland, partly even Italy. Then came the election of Donald Trump and Brexit, and all of these changes of 2016 were very favorable for the new autocrats. It is like the complete reversal of 1989 and democratization. Now it is a de-democratization, a global democratic recession. Suddenly Orbán gained global significance as the pioneer of this whole process.
Orbán’s anti-immigration policies seem like they were the model for those of Donald Trump.
During the Syrian refugee crisis, Orbán was determined not to let these people enter because, as he argued, they were Islamists coming from a different culture, and, as he believed, potential terrorists. He pointed to West European cities in Nice, Paris, Brussels, and London, where there had been some terrorist acts, and he created a general feeling of discomfort in Hungary to establish an anti-immigration position. Hungary, like most Central European countries, is a “white society.” There are not many Asians, Africans, or Afro-Europeans except the Roma community of Hungarians. On top of that, Orbán emphasized that Hungary must be the last bastion of Christianity in Europe. In reality, Hungary is a quite secular country where Christianity could only be used as a politicized religion.
That resonated very well in the United States with the right-wing of the Republican Party. When Donald Trump became president of the United States, it turned out that there was international support for Orbán’s ideas. Orbán could point to how Trump reacted to the illegal migrants at the Mexican border, in justifying why Hungary needed to erect a fence at the southern border to stop these brown-skinned Islamic migrants from the Middle East. Ironically, none of those refugees wanted to stay in Hungary since they were going to Austria and mostly Germany. Orbán did not let them go so quickly. They collected them in the center of Budapest and showed on TV that these “dirty people” are occupying the streets. In 2016, autocratization speeded up in Hungary. It is a propaganda state with a personalist rule, not just a mafia state.
What happened when Covid began?
Orbán was completely unprepared for this. Healthcare and public education have deteriorated in Hungary because he preferred to spend lots of money on other things, like feeding his own oligarchs, the so-called new national bourgeoisie, supporting football teams, spending on his Olympic dreams, constructing stadiums, and so on. But not public education and healthcare. Slovakia, the Czech Republic, Austria, and all these countries around Hungary could manage to contain the pandemic and produced much lower death tolls. Still, by this time, there are millions of followers of Orbán who believe that he is a great leader, probably the best that the country could get. Now, the overriding message of the state propaganda media is that whatever Orbán does is good for the country. A bit like Perón was in Argentina or Hugo Chávez was in Venezuela, or this is what Bolsonaro is doing in Brazil these days.
And suddenly, in late February came this war.
Orbán had a long-established close political relationship with Putin and visited Moscow at the beginning of last February. They met regularly over the last eight years, as Orbán positioned Hungary as the only EU country that is a friend of Russia. Orbán behaved as if Hungary were not a member of the European Union or a member of NATO. Always bashing Brussels, the inability of the Brussels elite to do anything, blaming Brussels even though the money was coming from Brussels. It is really a very ugly game to play: getting the money from the European Union and pursuing anti-EU politics.
Now, this is the moment of truth, because Putin is sharply negative figure who started a military invasion of a neighboring country, Ukraine. He is a dictator who’s threatening the world with a potential global war. There is no way that Orbán can continue to stand with this guy at the moment, so he seems to move back toward the European Union, and NATO. But since we are in the election campaign, and his followers were trained to be pro-Russian, the domestic propaganda machine has not changed. Since the foreign policy of Hungary collapsed in a week, there is now a visible discrepancy between Orbán’s shallow foreign policy moves and his real domestic policy. He has become somebody who is unable to show any real solidarity with Ukraine and unable to display any morality but is only attempting to get some gains.
But since we are in the election campaign, and his followers were trained to be pro-Russian, the domestic propaganda machine is still pro-Russian. Orbán is talking the language of peace and security; we are in the shadow of history, so we should just stay passive, do nothing, and that will be all right. Meanwhile, the opposition is not talking about peace and security, but peace and freedom. Maybe just the notion of security is more attractive than the notion of freedom. And nobody can speak against peace. Of course, everybody wants peace. But peace in itself is not enough because peace can be can also mean the victory of Vladimir Putin and total surrender of Ukraine. When there is a danger, usually people tend to support the incumbent. So maybe Orbán will be lucky again.
When the Czech, Slovene, and Polish leading politicians left for Kyiv to meet Zelensky, which was a brave move by these prime ministers, Orbán stayed at home. Of course, the others did not want to invite him because nobody wanted him—he is still considered a pro-Russian Prime Minister. So Orbán now is now largely isolated in Europe, his Fidesz party has been expelled from the European People’s Party, and it is out of any major power bloc in the European Union. And if Orbán wins the election, then Hungary will be isolated within the European Union and NATO.
Why does the Hungarian election matter? Why should the US care about it, for example?
It matters because Hungary belongs to the Euro-Atlantic Alliance and it should be united now, at the moment of a major war, unprecedented in Europe since 1945—if you don’t count the war in the former Yugoslavia. It is a war between long-established existing states, unlike in the former Yugoslavia. If Orbán wins, then it will be an indication that there is an unreliable member of the club of NATO and the European Union. Maybe Hungary will not be receiving major funds from the EU. But from the European Union point of view, it is also a blow, because the principles of the European Union are about liberal democracy and the rule of law. And they are still tolerating a semi-authoritarian country, within their own ranks, a member state that disrespects their commonly declared values.