Viktor Orbán’s brand of politics is a new norm in Europe. It resonates with France’s National Front on the far right, with Spain’s Podemos to the left, with Poland’s new conservative leaders, with Italian populist movements, and with the Tories in Britain. Even with Donald Trump in America, his strong man suit fits. However, Orbán is a pioneer in this style of politics, with an uncompromising defense of national sovereignty and a clear distrust towards the European liberal establishment. Marked by a deep confrontational style of politics, Orbán has confronted liberals at all fronts, domestically and within the European politics in the name of the Hungarian people. As with most populist leaders he resembles, Orbán envisions an “illiberal democracy” for Hungary, and believes little should stand in the way of the “popular will”, which is in turn embodied by him exclusively. This thinking makes Orbán a hallmark for populists worldwide.
Orbanism in that sense is similar to Putinism or Erdoganism, even though his authoritarian trend is diluted by the EU’s norms. Still, during his four terms as Prime Minister of Hungary, Orbán has altered most of the country’s institutions such as the electoral bodies, courts, and heavily regulated media. Alongside with the party he leads, Fidesz, he has recruited associates that think like them. He has also placed close and personal friends in watch dog positions such as Prosecutors or Judicial Councils. The EU has been quite critical of the developments in Hungary during the last decade, but little has changed.
More importantly, Orbán openly rejects liberalism and believes people prefer his stability and strong leadership. However, this was not always the case for Orbán. Many see his political development as steadily going from liberal and democratic, to conservative and authoritarian. While hard to comprehend, in his early days, Orbán was the epitome of liberalism and democracy in Hungary.
Liberal and Democratic Beginnings and Political Career
Orbán has quite an interesting career leading to the Prime Minister position. With a Law degree from the University of Budapest in 1987, he was part of a pro-democracy group-study sponsored by George Soros, a figure he later turned against. Later on he received a scholarship from the Soros Foundation to study political philosophy in Oxford. At the time, he was part of a generation of opponents of the regime in power, which still echoed the Soviet political style. At the age of 24, he co-founded a youth movement called Federation of Young Democrats or Fidesz. Initially, the party did not allow members over 35 years old to join, in an effort to separate themselves from the old and “corrupt” political class. Orbán was against the presence of Soviet troops in Hungary. Soviet Troops did leave the country in mid-1991.
Young, trendy, and liberal, Orbán made his international debut in the political arena in 1989, on Heroes Square in Budapest on the occasion of the Second Funeral of Imre Nagy, Prime Minister of Hungary during the revolution of 1956 against the Soviets. In front of 250,000 people, the leader made a speech calling for free elections and the departure of Soviet troops from the country. However, Fidesz’s appeal to the urban youth and intelligencia did not achieve much electoral success. In their first election in 1994, the party did not do very well. he true change in Orbán’s liberal stance came in 1995 when the leader of the conservative right passed away. In an opportunistic maneuver and using the vacuum of leadership in the right, Orbán and Fidesz took a sharp-right and a conservative tone. Some argue his initial liberal stance was merely a facade against the Soviets since liberalism was “in” at the time. In any case, the development of his long and impactful political career highlights the shifts.
Eventually in 1998 success came for Fidesz, and Orbán became the Prime Minister of Hungary for his first run. During his term he was active in European affairs and oversaw Hungary’s entrance into NATO in 1999. At this time, the leader showed strong multilateral ambitions and will to cooperate with the EU. As with his liberal stance, this was destined to change as he solidified his power internally. However, he lost his position in 2002 after Fidesz lost the election to the Hungarian Socialist Party.
In 2010, once more, Fidesz won in a land-slide and Orbán started his second term as Prime Minister in Hungary. Although this time he had more tools. Given the massive electoral win, he also counted with a Supermajority in the National Assembly, the country’s parliament. With 68% of the seats taken up by Fidesz, he could basically legislate at will, and more importantly change Hungary`s fundamental laws. Being very popular in Hungary, in 2014, Fidesz won again the parliamentary election, and Orbán was elected Prime Minister again. Finally, in 2018, once more his party, in a coalition with the Christian Democratic Party won the majority of seats and Orbán started his 4th term as Prime Minister. By this time, his liberal past had been long gone and replaced by new values that mark his style of leadership.
Nationalism, Anti-Immigration and Religion: New Pillars of Orbán’s Rule
The turn towards these new values was moderate at first considering his party was not very successful. However, as Fidesz won the elections in 1998, Orbán became the youngest Prime Minister of Hungary of the century. His shift from an anti-communist liberal to a conservative right-wing populist was finalised. During this period, his populist tendencies also came to light. Calling upon the people, his ideas regarding work, family, and the nation started to appear more strongly in his rhetoric. Above all, he pushed for the defense, at all costs, of Hungary’s sovereignty and identity, concepts he has obsessed for during his entire political career.
However, it was not until 2010, in a post-2008 crisis set up, that Fidezs and Orbán rose once more guided by their strong ideology and aided by massive popularity. During this new era of power for the leader, the main pillars of his ideological stance solidified. First and foremost, Orbán sees himself as a defender of Hungary’s Christian identity. Even though he does not come from a particularly religious background, Orbán is proud of this religious rule of a homogenous society with shared Christian values. He has constantly denounced the West for their ideas on multiculturalism and their “moral corruption”. However, no denunciation has gone as far as his anti-immigration views.
While “othering” immigrants is a hallmark of European right-wing populists, Orbán takes his xenophobia to a different level. Especially during the immigration crisis, Orbán saw immigrants, specifically Muslims, as the largest threat to the Hungarian society. He denounced the “Moral imperialism” of Germany’s decision to unilaterally open its borders. He referred to the flow of migrants as a “German Problem” and stated that if you aren’t Hungarian, it is impossible to be Hungarian. Orbán’s extreme views were accompanied with actions, such as the construction of a barb-wire fence in the Hungarian border to stop the flow of refugees. Orbán’s efforts to preserve the Christian white society from Islam has resonated through right-wing parties all throughout Europe. While appalling, xenophobia is not even the most dangerous aspect of Orbanism. The decay of Hungary’s democratic fabric to cronyism and authoritarianism takes the lead.